(the above photo of Uma and Joe was taken last August, at my birthday dinner)
THE BELL CURVE:
Courage and hope despite odds
By JOSEPH N. BELL
My dear friend Uma Nithipalan went home last Tuesday, 77 days after she got on a plane in Los Angeles to fly to New York and join her husband-to-be who was awaiting her there for a brief visit. Twice in those 77 days, the people who love her were told that Uma had only a 20% chance of ever making that trip home alive.
But medical opinion turned out to be no match for the wave of prayer and love that washed over her.
The love came from hundreds, maybe thousands, of friends of Uma who met her and followed her story in the blog of my stepson, Erik Patterson.
This cornucopia of hope and, finally, conviction grew daily, first among Uma's dear friends. But very quickly, they told their friends who told their friends who told other friends, all of whom seemed to find in the courage and determination of these three young people a reason to look — even if only for a few moments — beyond the horrors taking place in our world today to a crusade anchored in the certainty that a reservoir of goodness remains, with the power to bring about results that could be seen as miraculous.
Uma is a native Sri Lankan and a citizen of the world who graduated, with Erik, from Occidental College in Los Angeles eight years ago. Uma was Erik's closest friend then, and she has remained his closest friend ever since. And when Uma fell in love with John Ballinger last year, John became Erik's second-closest friend.
That's the way it was when Uma got on the plane to New York last Jan. 30 to celebrate the engagement ring John had given her at Christmas. John, who is a fine and versatile musician, was playing a gig in Manhattan with the troupe that took "Dancing with the Stars" on the road. It was a job he wanted badly and was enjoying immensely. And it paid him well enough to bring Uma to New York to share it at least briefly.
John was working when Uma arrived at his hotel, but she was waiting in his room when he finished and hurried to her side. And a few hours after that joyous meeting, before the morning light, this wonderfully healthy 27-year-old woman was in convulsions, writhing in pain, gasping for breath.
An ambulance rushed her to the nearest hospital where five precious hours went by before she was diagnosed with a brain aneurism and transferred to another hospital equipped and staffed to treat her.
Thus started the journey of these three remarkable people.
A few hours after John called him, Erik was on his way to New York. He had joined John at St. Vincent's Hospital when the first desolate news was delivered by the doctor heading the team that treated Uma. She was in an induced coma, he said, critically ill, with, at best, a 20% chance of surviving.
That's when the two men in her life, staggered at first by the news, decided that they simply would not allow it to happen. And from that moment until she went home last Tuesday, one or both of them were constantly at her side. And so were the prayers they pleaded for in the long, poignant e-mails and blogs they sent daily to the folks back home. Always factually straight. And always upbeat. "Here are the facts," they seemed to say, "but the reality is Uma's full recovery."
That's the way it was through the first three weeks.
One minor setback after another, somehow dealt with.
But always there was the fear of stroke attacking her nearly defenseless body. If only she could get past that, they could all relax a little. And they almost had it made when stroke abused her body once again — and once again the doctors delivered the 20% lifeline of hope. And so the volume was turned up on the call for help, and the response was quick and sure. Uma fought off the grim predictions, resumed her recovery, and a little over a month ago was on her way back to rehab in Los Angeles.
That required a new miracle. Only an air ambulance could deliver her, and that cost more than $20,000. So Erik fired up his blog and told Uma's army the problem — and within four days more than enough money poured in to pay for the air ambulance. So now, after four weeks in a rehab facility, Uma is walking with a cane, communicating with beautiful smiles and nods and grimaces as she relearns speech a word at a time, expressing a range of emotions from frustration to joy, and flashing wonderful glimpses of the old Uma.
It's impossible to convey the almost lyrical flavor of the hope and love and determination in the reports that came from John and Erik every day since Uma was stricken. They could and should be edited into a fine and inspirational book. Here's just a taste from John, written when he went home for the first time in several months, after he and Uma returned to Los Angeles:
"I look around our house and see all the physical things that make up our life together — the little things like a receipt for a dinner we had, the new spice rack she bought while I was on tour, notes on the refrigerator, photographs that she put up on the wall, the Christmas tree she hadn't taken down and where she left her nightgown before flying off to New York.
"Her essence and personality seem very much to be there and intact. Her sense memory of me and trust in me seem to be just as present. But exactly where are her memories? Will she remember any lines from the play that won her an award from LA Weekly? Or how long it took her to breathe again after I asked her to marry me? And does it really matter? Maybe the essence of things is what I will lean on for a while.
"Her rehabilitation will take place for many years in some ways, but the bulk and the foundation of it will be done over the next four months to a year. So I'm asking again for your spiritual help for Uma. I really believe she has come this far due to the prayers and love sent her way by all of you. And she needs this again, just as much as before."
I was privileged to be among the people who love Uma and received the daily reports from her bedside.
A few days before she returned home, I visited her at the rehab center and reminded her of an inside joke we shared. And her eyes lighted up and met mine, and her smile was broad and understanding, and I thought of the final sentence in one of John's latest reports: "Tomorrow," he wrote, "is Easter, and Uma will rise up and walk."