Everyday Heroes

Everyday Heroes

Many years ago when I was still in college and thin enough that counting carbs wasn’t something I needed to worry about, I was a frequent visitor to McDonald’s. Despite being in my twenties, I always ordered a Happy Meal. To me, it was the perfect amount of food, and I could usually find a child who was delighted to have the toy. Giving those toys away added to my love of the Happy Meal.

One day as I stood in line to buy my lunch, I watched the two people in front of me. It was a lady and a little boy around four, who I assumed was her son. The lady ordered only a small hamburger, and her son cried, “Why can’t I have a Happy Meal?” The lady leaned down and whispered, “I only have money for a hamburger.”

Without thinking, I tapped the woman on the shoulder and held out the $5 bill that was in my hand, “Ma’am, you dropped this.”

She looked at me confused and shook her head. The man in line behind me spoke up, “Yes, I saw it fall from your pocket.” Finally the woman understood and nodded to us gratefully. She bought her son a Happy Meal, and a little while later I gave him the toy from my own meal.

It was a small gesture of kindness on my part, but it made me feel good to help someone else. Many more times, though, I have been on the receiving end of someone else’s kindness.

One day long before cell phones, I was driving home from college when suddenly one of my tires went flat. I pulled to the side of the road, grabbed the can of Fix-a-Flat from the trunk, and walked around to check the tire. It had a hole in it the size of my fist—the Fix-a-Flat didn’t stand a chance. Although I am quite familiar with the mechanics of changing a tire, I’ve never had the strength to get the lug nuts off. I had no choice but to start walking. Less than five minutes later, a police officer pulled up behind me. I explained that my car had a flat and I was walking to the next exit to call home. Instead, he took me back to my car and changed the tire for me. When I got home, my mother asked if I had gotten the officer’s name so that I could send him a thank you note. I told her no. That never even occurred to me. She shook her head and replied, “I thought I taught you better than that.”

Well, yes, she had. Unfortunately, in a moment of crisis, it’s easy to focus on your own trouble and fail to really notice the people who bring you through it. When my first child was born, I was in labor FOREVER. Sixteen hours. My husband was antsy in the hospital, and so I sent him home to take care of our dog. He took longer than I expected, and I was getting more and more agitated. A nurse came by to check on me and ended up sitting with me all night. She was young and patient and soothing. She talked to me and gave me ice chips and made me laugh despite my discomfort. Eventually, it was time for Kendrick to make his appearance, and the nurse slipped out of my room. To this day I do not know her name, but I will never forget her kindness.

Several years later, I had two sons and continued to work full-time. Those were hectic days, and I often felt pulled in multiple directions. One day I was the last parent to pick up my kids from the YMCA summer camp and, feeling guilty, agreed to stop at a convenience store so the boys could get the kind of drinks I normally didn’t let them have. At the store, I helped them pick out their sodas and opened them as we walked to the counter. That’s when I realized I didn’t have my wallet. It was probably in the car, but I wasn’t sure. I looked at the teenager behind the counter and apologized profusely. I told him I would check my car, but he said not to worry about it. He pulled out his own debit card and paid for the drinks. Thankfully, my wallet was in the car, and I was able to quickly repay him. Of course, he couldn’t know that at the time—he only saw my distress. I hope he understood how much his generosity meant to a tired and harried mom.

A few years after I moved to Nashville, I had gone home to Mississippi for the weekend. As I was getting in my car to leave, my mom tried to give me gas money. I politely refused, but she insisted. Anxious to get on the road, I quit arguing, took what I thought was a $20 bill, and shoved it in my pocket. Several hours later, I stopped for gas and went inside to pay. I handed the young lady my mom’s money and waited for my $2 in change. Instead, she gave me $82. I told her she had miscounted because I had only given her a 20. “No,” she said. She held up the $100 bill that I had handed her. I was shocked and told her that my mom had given it to me, and I wouldn’t have taken it if I had realized how much it was. Still thinking I shouldn’t have taken the money from my mom, I simply thanked the cashier and left. It was only when I was back on the road that I realized I should have tipped her. The young woman could have easily kept the money after I told her she had made a mistake, but she didn’t.

These are only a few examples of people who have gone out of their way for me. Sometimes in today’s world it is easy to become jaded and mistrustful. We need to remind ourselves that the world is full of everyday heroes—people who are just trying to be the best person they can be and trying to help others along the way. That’s the kind of person I want to be. Sometimes I fail, but I’ll keep trying.

In a future blog, I would love to share stories from others. If you have an everyday hero story you want to tell, please email me the details at kaylon@kaylonbrunertran.com. Let me know if I can use your first name or if you prefer anonymity. I might email you back if I have a question, but I won’t spam you. Nobody has time for that.

Photo: My sons Kendrick and Keaton dressing up as fictional superheroes for Halloween in 2008.



I live in a large neighborhood in a suburb outside of Nashville. It’s a wonderful neighborhood that has been a great place for my sons to grow up. There’s a creek that runs along one end and a trail that encircles it. I’ve walked that trail more times than I can count and never grow tired of it. On a recent trek along the trail, I walked past a neighbor’s house and noticed a new addition to their backyard. It was a kind of obstacle course made of rope suspended between two trees. When I looked closer, I saw the label “American Ninja Warrior.”

I couldn’t help but smile. My sons had been obsessed with that show when they were little. If you don’t know it, it is a reality competition show that started in Japan but now has fans and competitors all over the world. Athletes must run, jump, climb, and swing through a crazy obstacle course. Although the courses frequently change, the “Spider Wall” is a regular. The contestants use a trampoline to jump and plant themselves between two walls. Using strength and skill, they must shinny their way to the end of the wall where another challenge awaits. If they fall, and many do, they land in the water and are eliminated. Those who can hang on through the course must hit a buzzer before time runs out. Athletes with the fastest times move on to the next level.

My sons never missed an episode of Ninja Warrior, and they were anxious to be old enough to compete. I made elaborate courses for them that ran through the house and into the backyard. We even had a spider wall complete with a small trampoline. They would each take their turn on the course as I timed them.

Keaton (age 5) takes a turn on the spider wall.

Back then the house was always a wreck. In addition to the homemade ninja course, there was always a partially built puzzle or LEGO masterpiece on the dining room table. Tents made from blankets were a common sight in the living room. The noise could be deafening. One day school was out for some reason, so I was home with them but trying to work. I had been in my office for a while when I realized the house was quiet—always a bad sign. I rushed out to find them rappelling off the second-floor landing down into the living room. For “safety” they had piled every pillow and cushion they could find on the floor to catch them if they fell.

Those were crazy and exhausting days. It seemed that I was constantly in demand by one or both of them. They always needed me for something, and sometimes I couldn’t even get five minutes to myself. Nearly everything either of them said started with, “Mom, can you…?” I’ll admit, there were times I longed for them to grow up and be able to take care of themselves.

Fast-forward a decade and my wish has come true. My boys are now 18 and 20. Although they are both home from college for the summer, things are nothing like the days long ago. Even when all of us are home, the house is often quiet. No more running wild across a homemade ninja course. The house is a lot cleaner too. They don’t have to be reminded to put their shoes away or put their dishes in the sink.

These days they rarely need my help with anything. Instead, they are the ones reaching up high to get something for me or bringing in a heavy box so I don’t have to struggle with it. Kendrick built the website I use to post these blogs, and Keaton teaches me how to use my phone whenever I get a new one. It’s a strange feeling. Sometimes it seems I need them more than they need me.

As I walked past the store-bought ninja obstacle course, I was a little sad. I realized I missed my younger boys and those crazy, hectic days. I missed being needed.

I finished my walk and returned home to find Keaton sitting on the couch with his computer. He had started his summer job and had paperwork to complete. “Mom, can you help me? I don’t know some of the stuff they are asking me for.”

I’m sure I smiled as I sat down beside him. Okay, I thought, they aren’t completely grown yet. The transition to independence may be well underway, but it isn’t quite complete.  I took the laptop from my youngest son and promised myself that I would savor these waning days of childhood.

Top photo (2010): Kendrick (standing) and Keaton (in water) at the creek that runs by our neighborhood. Every time we went, Keaton “accidentally” fell in.



There are moments in life that stay with you forever. Sometimes their significance goes unnoticed when they are happening, and it is only later when you realize the memory of that moment has wormed its way into your soul and will never let go.

For me, one of those moments came in 1975 in the middle of fifth grade. Another occurred much more recently in March of 2019. Unexpectedly, those two moments would collide.

In 1975, several months after the American war in Vietnam ended, a new student arrived at my elementary school. Her name was Tam. She and her family had come to Mississippi as refugees from Vietnam. Of course, I asked her why and I was embarrassed by her answer. That was the first moment.

Tam and I had been born in the same year, but our childhoods were markedly different. I had grown up oblivious to the conflict that had been the backdrop to her entire life. I was fascinated by my new friend and wanted to know more about the place she used to call home—the place where more than 56,000 Americans had died. My parents, the library, and Tam herself were all great resources and helped me in my quest to learn about Vietnam and the war that brought her to the U.S. It was through my conversations with Tam that I first learned about Agent Orange.

Agent Orange was an herbicide that the U.S. used extensively in Vietnam to destroy the jungle and food crops of the enemy. It was supposed to help our troops. Much later I would come to understand that Agent Orange was also contaminated with dioxin—one of the most toxic compounds humans have ever produced.

In 1995, two decades after meeting Tam, I completed my dissertation studies examining mechanisms associated with the development of endometriosis, a gynecologic disease. These studies earned me a PhD in reproductive pathology. Two years before receiving my degree, the first paper linking dioxin exposure to the development of endometriosis was published by another laboratory1. Although I couldn’t know it at the time, that paper would set the course for the rest of my scientific career. Over the last two decades, my research partner, Kevin Osteen, PhD, and I, along with a myriad of students, fellows, and colleagues have contributed significantly to the current understanding of the long-term and generational effects of dioxin. It was because of these studies that in March of 2019 I first met Ken Gamble. The second moment.

Ken did two tours in Vietnam with the Brown Water Navy. In recent years, he established the Orange Heart Medal Foundation and has worked tirelessly to ensure veterans of America’s most unpopular conflict are recognized for their suffering due to Agent Orange exposure. Ken learned of our research and asked if he could visit the lab.

As it happened that day in 2019 when Ken came to Vanderbilt to learn more about our dioxin research, my 17-year-old son, Kendrick, and his friend were also there. It was senior “shadow day” at their high school. Seniors could have an excused absence from school if they spent the day visiting someone who worked in the field to which they aspired. Kendrick cared nothing about becoming a scientist; he just wanted a day out of school. His friend, however, hoped to become a physician and relished the thought of spending the day at a medical school.

After showing Ken the labs, we returned to my office. Kendrick was there and I introduced him to Ken. They shook hands, and Ken said to Kendrick, “I was your age when I went to Vietnam.”


I was born in 1964, and thus every American veteran of the war in Vietnam is at least 10 years my senior. By the time I knew enough about Agent Orange to be appalled by our government’s decision to use it, veterans of the Vietnam war were well into their fourth and fifth decades. In other words, they were long past their teenage years.

I looked at the 70-something-year-old man in front of me and could easily accept that he was a veteran. Vietnam veterans had always been older than me, and I never really thought about the fact that they were young once. As I looked from Ken to my child, the juxtaposition created a stark contrast and made me think. I could not possibly imagine Kendrick as a soldier carrying a rifle in a foreign land. Kill or be killed. At 17 he was already much taller than I will ever be, but he was still my little boy. My child. Ken had been a soldier at his age. I had trouble comprehending it.

That’s when those two very disparate moments collided.

Tam came to the U.S. as a refugee. I was born in this country. Both of us are here today because of men and women like Ken who fought and too often died so that the rest of us can live our lives in freedom.

I love America and understand to my core how lucky I am to be an American. I have always appreciated the men and women who are willing to fight to defend and protect us and our allies and am entirely sincere when I say, “Thank you for your service.”

Our research is dedicated to helping America’s Vietnam veterans, their children, and grandchildren who may suffer due to our use of Agent Orange in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, it has been easy—too easy—to have a clinical detachment to the work. Although my care and concern for Agent Orange-exposed Veterans and their children is genuine and always has been, I must admit, it was only when I looked into the eyes of a veteran and saw my own child reflected there that the mission truly became personal.

Ken Gamble during his Navy days (Ken is on the far left in the two outside photos). Circa 1962.
Left: A recent photo of Ken Gamble wearing the Agent Orange T-shirt and hat he designed. Right: Kendrick Tran (age 17) in May 2019 immediately before his high school graduation ceremony.

1Rier SE, Martin DC, Bowman RE, Dmowski WP, Becker JL. (1993) Endometriosis in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) following chronic exposure to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin. Fundam Appl Toxicol. Nov;21(4):433-41. doi: 10.1006/faat.1993.1119. PMID: 8253297

The Orange Heart Medal Foundation website: http://www.orangeheartmedal.org/about/index.html

3 Stars

Three Stars

I grew up in the seventies and eighties long before the internet and the endless number of online streaming options we have today. In my free time, I read books. Lots of books. I loved how they could take you anywhere and you could experience life in another country or another time. Not surprisingly, my first job was as a library assistant at the Elizabeth Jones Library in my hometown of Grenada, Mississippi. The other teenage library assistant at the time was Donna Tartt. She and I played a writing game of sorts.

Donna bought a steno notebook, and each week one of us would write a few pages of a story. The next week the other would pick up where the first left off. Neither of us knew what the other was thinking. For my part, I had no idea what I would write until I wrote it. This silly game clearly revealed to me that Donna was a gifted writer. Whatever ridiculousness flowed from my pen, she made it make sense. Like it had purpose. A few years later, it came as no surprise to me to learn that Donna had received a book deal from a well-known publisher. I was genuinely happy for her. She was talented and the world needed to hear from her.

More than four decades have passed since our library game.  Donna is now a famous author, and I am a medical research scientist at a major university. Our paths have never crossed again, and I doubt she even remembers me. Like Donna though, I have my share of publications. My most famous work appeared in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, a medical journal that won’t be found at any grocery store and can’t be ordered from Amazon. That’s okay. Writing about our scientific findings is one of my favorite parts of the research process, even though I know my audience will be rather small.

Last year I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I was nervous and insecure. Would it be any good? Would anyone be interested in the story I wanted to tell? The first complete draft was just under 40,000 words. It seemed short for a novel, but I felt I had said everything I needed to say. I sent it to my sister, Leana. She LOVED it. I was happy but also cautious. She’s my sister—of course she liked it. It’s a bit like your mom telling you you’re pretty. It’s not exactly an unbiased opinion.

The next person to read that first draft was my close friend, Christina. She liked the story but said she needed details. “Tell me more about the people and the places. I need you to paint a picture.”

Oh, I thought, I can do that. Before long Time Intertwined had expanded to more than 70,000 words, and it truly became a novel and not just a story. Leana and Christina both read it again and assured me it was good. I gave it to my brother-in-law, an avid reader who warned me he wouldn’t finish it if he didn’t like it. He read it in a weekend.

Feeling more confident, I proceeded with having the book professionally edited. Then I self-published with Amazon and waited. Would anyone buy it? If so, would they like it?

Although there is no danger of me making the bestseller list anytime soon, I sold more copies than I expected. Even better, the people who read it liked it. Nearly every review was five stars. Not bad for a first book, right?  I was elated and more than a little relieved. The feeling didn’t last, however. Insecurity and self-doubt began to creep in again, and I wondered if all those reviews were written by friends and family. I needed more validation. With trepidation, I submitted Time Intertwined for professional review. There was no guarantee that my book would be reviewed, and no guarantee that if it was it would be positive. All I could do was throw my book into the reviewer ring and wait.

After nearly two months without any communication, I received an email telling me the book had been picked up by a professional reviewer. More waiting. Another two months dragged by. Finally the email I had been nervously waiting for arrived. The long-awaited review. My hands were shaking as I opened it. “Five Stars. A must read.” The reviewer wrote a long and effusive review and said I should keep writing. I felt amazing. But I wanted more. Good reviews are addictive. Kind of like crack. The more you get, the more you want. The more you need.

By the time I received my first professional review of Book One, my second book, Lives Intertwined, was live on Amazon. Fewer sales than the first book, but every review was five stars. And so, with a little less anxiety than the first time, I threw Book Two into the professional reviewer ring. Two days later I was told the book had been selected. Less than a week after that, the review was back. Wow, I thought, they must have loved it since they read it so fast.

I was wrong. Three stars.

Three?? I was devastated.

I was so upset it took me two days to read the full review and even then insisted a friend sit with me while I read it. It turns out the reviewer didn’t hate my book. He just didn’t love it.

Lives Intertwined tells the story of two soldiers who meet during the American War in Vietnam and remain friends over many decades. Only two chapters out of more than 100 can be considered war scenes, but those chapters annoyed my reviewer. He had been there—in Vietnam. Apparently, my characters’ experiences didn’t mirror his own. He called my descriptions of battle “Rambo-esque.” Okay. I can’t disagree. I wanted my soldiers to be tough guys and somewhat larger than life. I wanted them to be heroes who my readers admired and loved. And I wanted my readers to remember that these men were young once, even though they grow old across the pages of the book.

In the end, despite the three-star rating, my reviewer said that he “felt a visceral connection to much of the story,” and he recommended it to his readers. Those words made me feel a tiny bit less devastated.

Somewhere deep in my psyche I know that my books aren’t for everyone, and I should be able to accept that. Surely most creative people have experienced a less-than-stellar review of their work. Maybe even Donna Tartt. Maybe between her Pulitzer Prize and her movie deal she received a review that felt like a gut punch to her soul. I hope not, but, if so, I am glad she kept writing anyway.

I think I’ll do the same. Writing makes me happy—and, if I am very lucky, my words will make other people happy too.

Notes: Donna Tartt is the award-winning author of The Goldfinch and other novels. The attached photo is of the actual steno notebook she bought in 1980 that we used for our writing game. My mom found it in her attic when she moved in 2020.

Not My Type

Not My Type

I love the word game Scrabble. Growing up my dad was kind of a jerk, but he was something of a wordsmith and we played a lot. When my sons were little, we played the many little kid variations of Scrabble, but as they got older they lost interest in game night, and I had no one to play with anymore. Then one of my sons told me about the phone version of Scrabble—Words with Friends—probably because he thought I could use some friends. And maybe he was right.

I married late in life, and it didn’t work out. For a long time after the divorce, I had no interest in dating. Life was just too busy. Demanding job, two kids, two cats. I didn’t have time for anything else. Then my oldest went to college and life was a tiny bit less busy. About that time a friend asked me to foster a cat that had special needs. Okay, I thought. It’s only temporary. Or so I thought. Squeaky turned out to be such a sweet and funny cat, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her. Anyway, let’s just say “foster fail” is a real thing. So now I have three cats. How many cats does it take before you’re the crazy cat lady? I really didn’t want to find out and decided that maybe it was finally time to start dating again.

Several of my friends had been successful with online dating, and so one of my girlfriends and I decided to give it a try. We looked at the various sites, including the ones for “mature” singles.

And before you ask—no, I didn’t mention that I had three cats. I’m not a complete moron.

My friend and I decided to sign up for three months, and, depending on how it went, maybe we’d sign up for another three months. She went with one site, and I tried another. It did not go well. We both canceled after one month.

Apparently when you list your preferences, the algorithm completely ignores them. College degree a must, you say? The algorithm responded with a high school dropout who still lived with his mother. Must be a non-smoker? This guy only smokes cigars, so he’ll be perfect for you. I’m 5’2 and said that I would prefer a guy who was taller than me. I guess that was a really high bar, because whatever algorithm they were using managed to find me not one but two guys who were shorter than me. In retrospect, I probably should have given them a chance.

In the one month that I was active on the site, there were three men who I thought might be worth communicating with. I was wrong on both counts. There were only two actual men and neither were worth my time.

The first guy was good-looking, very tall, lived close by, and owned a successful business. He sounded perfect. We began communicating via the dating website. We exchanged three messages within 30 minutes. It wasn’t the most erudite banter, but it was fine. Then he told me he was well-off financially and, well, the PG-13 version of what he said next was, “When can we have sex?” Uh, never. I mean, call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to get to know someone first. Maybe, you know, actually meet in real life.

I blocked Mr. Oversexed and looked around to see if anyone else had shown interest in my profile. There was and he seemed promising. Attractive and although not as tall as the first guy, he was still taller than me. He was recently divorced but not so recent as to be a concern. He lived a little less than an hour away. The first message he sent was several paragraphs long and incredibly well written. It was thoughtful, funny, and interesting. I responded with a message that I hoped was equally interesting and funny. It took him two days to respond, and I wondered if I had somehow offended him. Or maybe I wasn’t as funny as I thought? Finally I got the notification that Mr. Recently Divorced had responded. I’m sure I was smiling with anticipation as I clicked open the message. It was only two short sentences, and they were so poorly constructed I had to read them twice to understand what he had said. Disappointed, I tried to think of a reason for the change. Perhaps he was just in a hurry and sent the message without rereading it? I responded with a short note hoping that Mr. Recently Divorced would get his act back together.

Instead, the next message I received was from the dating website itself. It turns out Mr. Recently Divorced wasn’t a real person but a group of scammers preying on lonely old ladies. I’m not sure what hurt my feelings more—being duped or being called an old lady. Either way, it was time to move on.

The third guy I communicated with was not what I would call my type physically, but he wasn’t bad looking and he was funny. Really funny. I like funny, so I gave Mr. Not My Type a chance. We sent multiple emails via the dating website back and forth over a couple of weeks. It was fun and I was enjoying it. Fortunately, before either of us suggested we meet in person, he asked me who I followed on social media. Hmm, I thought. I don’t really follow anyone other than my friends. Certainly no one who I would call famous. He was surprised that I didn’t and suggested several people that I should follow. I had never heard of any of them, so I looked at their websites.

It turned out that Mr. Not My Type was an atheist. Not a “you do your thing and I’ll do my thing” kind of atheist but a radical, activist atheist. A “no one should have religion” atheist. I’ll be honest, it scared me. I blocked him.

Then I closed my account. I was done. I went back to playing Scrabble on my phone and started wondering if I should get another cat. Crazy cat lady didn’t sound so bad after all.

Some Gave All

Some Gave All

As most of us know, Memorial Day in the United States is a day set aside to acknowledge and remember our servicemen and women who have lost their lives while serving in the U.S. military. This is an important and appropriate tradition. But is it enough?

There is a phrase I have seen many times posted online and even on T-shirts that states, “The Vietnam War killed me. I just haven’t died yet.” This sentiment refers to the long-term and far-reaching effects of Agent Orange exposure.

Agent Orange was a chemical herbicide used extensively by the U.S. military during the war in Vietnam. Its purpose was to destroy enemy food crops as well as the dense jungle the Viet Cong used so effectively to ambush Western troops. Unfortunately, there were unintended consequences.

The manufacturing process associated with the making of Agent Orange, a combination of two different herbicides, also produced dioxin. Dioxin is considered the most toxic man-made compound ever created. It has no commercial value and is not manufactured intentionally, but it was present in Agent Orange.

Millions of gallons of herbicides were sprayed across the South Vietnam landscape over more than two decades of war. Agent Orange wasn’t the only one. There was also Agent Green, Agent Pink, Agent Purple, and Agent White. These so-called rainbow chemicals took their names from the colored stripe on the black barrels in which they were shipped. Agent Orange was the one most widely used. It was also the most toxic.

The initial consequences of exposure were rapid. Within 24 hours of being sprayed, leaves would begin to wither and die. Birds and other small animals would also quickly succumb to the chemical’s toxic effects. Eventually whole forests would be destroyed, wildlife killed, and the land ruined for farming. Yet, somehow, it was thought that Agent Orange had no serious effects on humans.

We know better now.

We now know that the dioxin in Agent Orange affects the human immune system, the endocrine system, and the reproductive tract. Cancer, a wide array of birth defects, pregnancy failures, diabetes, and many other conditions have been linked to dioxin exposure. We also now know some of its effects can be transmitted across generations affecting the children and grandchildren of those who were initially exposed. Another unintended consequence. This is what we know today. What have we not yet learned?

Memorial Day is a day to remember and honor those who have fallen while in service to our country. But I ask, should this be expanded to include those who died because of their service even though their death may have been years later?

Sadly, the example of Agent Orange is only that—one example of how our military members may be lost because of their service long after they have been discharged. We now know that the burn pits so often used to destroy military waste produced dioxin and many other chemicals that together created a highly toxic cloud that was eventually linked to the increased risk of cancer and numerous other diseases in our veterans. To my knowledge, we have not yet demonstrated that the children of military personnel with burn pit exposures may suffer the same fate as the children of Agent Orange-exposed Vietnam veterans—but has the question even been asked?

Finally, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among America’s veterans, but these invisible scars are often overlooked. Of course, the families of these veterans see and feel the long-term effects of war. Although PTSD may not cause disease the way Agent Orange or the burn pits have, the emotional toll can be just as great. When PTSD leads to death by a veteran’s own hand, is the loss any less great?

This Memorial Day as we remember the many members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard who have died during their service to our country, I will also take a moment to remember those who came home but ultimately died as an unintended consequence of their service. These men and women have given us their all and deserve to be honored for their sacrifice.

Photo: The Agent Orange Memorial in Springfield, Tennessee, USA. For more information, please visit them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AgentOrangeMemorialProject/

Thursday’s Child

Thursday’s Child

When my first child was born at 5:24 A.M. on September 20, 2001, he just missed being “Thursday’s Child.” As a human-interest story, a Nashville TV station ran a news feature profiling the family of the first baby born each Thursday. At first, I was a little disappointed.  Kendrick was perfect, and I wanted to show him off.  It turns out that the baby born first, who was also a boy, was born at just 27 weeks. Normal gestation for humans is 40 weeks. As I held my son in my arms, the story I saw on TV that night showed a tiny, red-faced infant in an incubator. I know nothing more of that little boy or his family.  Over the years as I watched my son grow, I have often thought of that child. Did he survive? Is he strong and healthy like my son or does he suffer because he was born too soon? I will never know, but I will never forget him. 

In addition to being a mom, I am a scientist and have spent my professional life studying reproductive diseases. In 2001, when Kendrick was born, we had just established the developmental dioxin exposure model that we now use extensively to understand the effects of that common toxicant. The model was originally designed to aid in our studies examining the causes of endometriosis, a reproductive disease that some women develop. The model was a success, and the toxicant-exposed female mice had numerous features that resembled women with that disease. Since women with endometriosis are often infertile, it seemed appropriate to mate our mice to see if their fertility was also compromised. At that time, I had never mated mice and was only certain an animal was pregnant when she began gaining weight. A week or so after mating, all the control mice were gaining weight, while only half of the toxicant-exposed mice looked like they might be pregnant. Gestation in a mouse is only 20 days; however, these first pregnancies weren’t timed and so I wasn’t sure when the pups would be born (again, I was only interested in fertility back then). Consequently, it seemed prudent to check on the mice each day until the pups were born. 

Finally the day came when I went to the animal facility and found pups. At first, I was excited. However, the pups were very small and very red. Something seemed wrong, but I didn’t know what. The unexposed mice were still pregnant.  It was only the dioxin-exposed mice that had delivered. I looked at the picture chart on the wall of the animal care facility with images of mouse pups, newborn to Day 21. My pups should be pink, not red. They should not be so small. Suddenly the image of “Thursday’s Child” came to me and I knew. I also knew that my research focus had just changed. I had spent 20 years studying endometriosis, but at that moment I knew I would spend the next 20 years researching the causes of prematurity.

Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” It was purely happenstance that my son was born the same day as another child who was born too soon. But it was that experience that prepared me to realize that in our effort to create an endometriosis model, we accidentally developed what may be the only mouse model of spontaneous preterm birth. Over the years since then, we have learned much from this model and are optimistic that it will eventually help us prevent preterm birth of human infants. To me, studying this model is not just a research opportunity, it is a responsibility. We have to figure this out for Thursday’s Child and every other child who will be born too soon if we don’t.

Photo: Kendrick, age 3 months, with mom Kaylon in 2001.

Lost and Found

Lost and Found

              In 1999 at a Catholic church in Richmond, Virginia, this white, redheaded girl from Mississippi married a Vietnamese immigrant. Our children, both sons, followed in 2001 and 2003. A decade and a half later having all our DNA analyzed sounded like an interesting idea. I bought four AncestryDNA kits. We spit in our tubes and put them in the mail. Two weeks later the results for our youngest son came back—47% Vietnamese, 3% Chinese, 40% Northern European, 7% Irish and 3% German. My results were next and were not a surprise based on Son #2. Mostly Northern European, with a hefty dose of Irish. Next was Dad. 70% Vietnamese and 30% Chinese. Son #1 was almost identical to his brother, but with a little more Irish. It was all fascinating, but now what? So I just saved the files with all the school pictures and pretty much forgot about them.

              A few months later, I received an email via AncestryDNA. Someone from California said we had DNA in common and wanted to connect. I looked at his file. He was a mix of Nigerian, Congolese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Clearly, he and I were not related. His DNA was full of color, while mine was colorless.  But just as clearly, he was related to my children and their dad. But I was certain that knew all of my Vietnamese family. Where did this guy come from? As it turned out, that was precisely what he wanted to know.

              He had grown up in California, the son of an African-American Vietnam veteran and his wife, also African-American. His skin was paler than his siblings, and growing up he sometimes felt out of place. However, he had a good life and a loving family, and he easily ignored the doubts that sometimes crept into his mind. Shortly after he turned 50, his mother died, followed a few years later by his father. As he cleaned out his parents’ home, he found the Vietnamese passport of a small child. He could not read the writing and did not recognize the name, but the birthdate was familiar—it was his own.

              It was his mother-in-law who suggested he have his DNA tested. “You never know, maybe you will find something,” she told him. He followed her advice, spit in his own tube, and a few weeks later he found me. Not his relative but, as it turned out, close enough.

              He knew his dad served in Vietnam and guessed his biological mother was the missing piece to his story. I called my sons’ aunt and started asking questions. I learned that the sister of my mother-in-law had a baby with an American serviceman. She had not been in a position to take care of the child, so the father had taken him back to the States where his wife agreed to raise him as their own. The biological mother immigrated to France after the war but never stopped thinking about the child she hoped had had a better life than the one she could give him. No words can express her joy at knowing he was alive and well and looking for her. She spoke French and Vietnamese, while her son spoke neither, but it didn’t matter. With the help of a translator and Skype, they connected across thousands of miles and five decades. A happy ending wrapped up in a new beginning.

Footnotes: This essay, describing true events from my family, was originally written in March 2019 and was the inspiration for my first novel, Time Intertwined. The photo is of my youngest son and was taken when he was six months old.

Despite All Appearances

Despite All Appearances

Growing up in small-town Mississippi, my family was poor.  Not food-stamp poor, but after my parents divorced and my dad walked away—our financial situation left a lot to be desired.  My mom worked two jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, but designer shoes and the latest fashions were never an option.  My sister Leana and I were teenagers at the time and we both worked after school.  We didn’t have to help with the household bills, but if we wanted something new or something “unnecessary,” we had to pay for it ourselves.  All these years later, the days of financial struggle are long behind us. My sister and her husband own a successful construction company, I was recently promoted to professor at the medical center where I work, and my mom, at 75, still works.  Not because she has to, but because she wants to keep busy.  However, the difficult years led all three of us to become quite talented at being frugal. To this day my sister can walk into any discount clothing store and walk out with the most amazing find.  This is the backdrop to the story I wish to tell.

              A few years ago, after moving into my new house near Nashville, Tennessee, my mom and sister drove up from Mississippi to help with the unpacking.  Normally, they would come in my sister’s truck, but it was in the shop again largely because my sister refused to by a new one.  She had the money (she and David always pay cash for vehicles because they “don’t do credit”), but my sister liked the way that money looked in her savings account.  So, instead of my sister’s vehicle, they opted to drive my mom’s car.  Now my mom desperately (in mine and Leana’s opinion) needed a new car.  Hers was 20 years old and looked every day of it.  The paint was peeling, the leather seats were peeling, and the headliner was coming apart.  But “the engine is just fine” my mom would say and steadfastly refused to by a car.  Did I mention she worked at a car dealership?

              After spending several days at my new house cleaning and unpacking, their visit was coming to a close.  My mom needed to get gas and my sister wanted to check out the new Goodwill store that had just opened nearby (still frugal, of course).  At the gas station, my sister decided to buy a lottery ticket since they don’t sell them in Mississippi and “she could do a lot of good with that kind of money”.  At the register, she noticed a nicely dressed gentleman and his very young son buying a gas can.  Even at 50-something my sister is beautiful when she puts an effort into her appearance.  This was not one of those days.  On top of that, while 25 years in Nashville has moderated my southern drawl, my sister, spending most of her life in Mississippi, not so much.  She probably looked and sounded very much like a down-on-her-luck redneck when she said, “Did y’all run out of gas?”  Well, duh, the nicely dressed man probably thought, but he just said, “yes, almost made it, but had to leave my truck at the Walgreens and we walked over.”  If you know Leana, you also know that she insisted we take them back to their car.  You don’t win an argument with my sister.  We all piled into my mom’s “the engine is just fine” car and headed toward the Walgreens, my sister at the wheel.  Leana asked what kind of truck he had and, discovering they both drove the same kind, she proceeded to tell the man that hers was a lot older and in the shop. She said she probably needed to get a new one but didn’t want to spend the money.  There is no doubt in my mind he thought the only way she would have the money to buy much of anything was if that lottery ticket was winner, but he just smiled and nodded.

              We arrived at his truck and we all got out of my mom’s car to say our good-byes.  The nicely dressed man pulled out a $20 bill and tried to give it to my mom.  All three of us laugh so hard we were in tears.  We didn’t need the money, despite all appearances.  The man was confused—he was trying to be kind and we did look just this side of destitute.  My mom was the first one to pull it together and very kindly said thank you, but no.  He insisted.  She insisted.  Finally, she quoted scripture.  Something about doing good for the sake of doing good and not for your own benefit (I am not as familiar with the good book as my mother thinks I should be, otherwise I would probably remember the verse she quoted).  The man just looked at her blankly, not knowing what to do.  She said, “surely, you would not deny us the gift of helping you?”  Okay—what can he say to that?  He put his money away, thanked us again, picked up his child and bolted. 

We all piled back in my mom’s car and Leana headed toward the Goodwill, which is right next door to the gas station. No doubt, the destination of the man and his son.  “No,” I said.  “We are not going to let him see us going into Goodwill.  Drive around.  Drive anywhere, but do not stop at the Goodwill.”