My mother told my brother the same bedtime story for years. It was a tale of heroes and miracles and second chances. It involved a dramatic rescue. And like the best stories told to children, my baby brother -- nearly 16 years younger than me -- had the starring role.
Even though my brother Usman had been born full-term, he stopped breathing within hours of his birth when his vocal cords collapsed. A Life Flight helicopter flew him from a suburban hospital to the major medical center in Houston.
Doctors performed a tracheostomy, inserting a tube that allowed air to pass directly into his lungs. They also cut a long, vertical incision across his belly to insert a feeding tube directly into his stomach. Mom began telling him this story when he was so young that he never questioned his scars growing up.
Clearly, the doctors were the heroes in this retelling of events.
Or were they?
While they performed life-saving operations on my newborn brother, they also delivered crushing news. The head surgeon talked to my mom when Usman was in recovery. She explained that they had run several tests, and that Usman would never eat, talk or breathe on his own. My mother stared at her, unable to accept what she had heard.
“What chance does he have of having a normal life?” she asked.
The surgeon delivered a blow. “In medical terms, we shouldn’t say there’s a zero percent chance,” she said, “but in my opinion, there’s no chance.” She advised my mother to learn sign language so she would be able to communicate with her son as he grew up.
For a month, my mom stayed in the hospital with my brother as he recovered, and she asked every doctor and nurse who came by what she could do to heal her child. She also prayed incessantly. One doctor gave her some advice, completely off the record. She said not to tell anyone what she was sharing with her. She suggested covering his trach for just a second at a time, multiple times during the day. Maybe, over time, it would help strengthen his vocal cords and epiglottis.
That was all my mother needed to hear. Even though Usman came home with machines and tubes to keep him alive, she worked with him every day using this unconventional therapy based on a brief conversation.
Four months later, she took him to the ear, nose and throat specialist for a follow-up. She insisted he could breathe on his own, and asked the doctor to remove the trach from Usman’s neck. The doctor was willing to try. They put Usman under anesthesia and removed the plastic tube from his windpipe.
Usman started gasping and choking and turning blue shortly after, and they immediately reinserted it.
The attempt to remove it was a failure.
My mother was devastated, but undeterred. She kept doing her exercises with him, praying that she would one day hear her son’s voice. Three months later, she was back in the ENT’s office, pleading for another chance. Her baby could breathe on his own, she said. The doctor was hesitant and reminded her of the failed procedure a few months earlier.
There’s a stubborn, persistent streak in my family, and, God bless him, the doctor relented to my mom’s will.
Usman, 8 months old at the time, went into surgery dependent on a suction device and humidifier to keep his airways clear.
He woke up breathing on his own.
He told me recently that he wonders what went through our mom’s mind when she took it upon herself to keep trying to fix something doctors had told her was unfixable. In her version of the story she told him all those years, she is never the hero.
“You were going to die,” she would tell him, as early as kindergarten. “The doctors saved you.”
And faith. And prayers. And a mother’s love.
My mom would tell him that he was going to pay that forward one day.
Last week, we watched Usman walk across the stage at Kent State University and become a doctor himself. He will start his residency in July.
“It was more than just me graduating,” he said. “It was all of us. There were definitely some miracles that got me here.”
Twenty-seven years later, an old story has a new beginning.