Fiat Lux: Michael Schindlinger and Irene Chen
Jan. 18, 2022 9:47 a.m.
“Fiat Lux” is a Daily Bruin podcast featuring stories of resilience from the UCLA community. In this episode, Daily Bruin Podcasts contributor Alan Humphreys talks to Michael Schindlinger and his wife Irene Chen, who are both instructors on campus, about their experience dealing with his hemorrhagic stroke in February 2020.
Alan Humphreys: From the Daily Bruin, this is “Fiat Lux” – a podcast series featuring stories of resilience from the UCLA community. In each episode, our guests share their personal stories of challenges they’ve faced in their lives and how they worked to overcome them. I’m Alan Humphreys, a Daily Bruin Podcasts contributor.
For our very first story, we’re talking to Michael Schindlinger – who has been a lecturer of ecology and evolutionary biology here on campus – and his wife Irene Chen – an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA – who reached out to us about his story of piecing his life back together after a hemorrhagic stroke in February of 2020. I met up with them to hear their story.
AH: Michael Schindlinger has dedicated his life to the study of animal behavior, which he began as a doctoral student at Harvard University. This is also where he met his wife, Irene Chen.
Irene Chen: So we first met in a class on ethology, which is animal behavior. And after the class ended, we just kept running into each other, like outside the science center, on campus …
AH: That’s Irene. She’s telling us about the story of meeting her husband in college. After the two of them kept bumping into one another, they made plans to go on a coffee date. Here’s Michael with more about that date.
Michael Schindlinger: I think we stopped by Radcliffe Yard.
IC: Oh, yeah.
MS: Because I knew of a tree there that had apples in it. And it had a ring of benches around it. And we sat on the benches and saw an apple fall from the tree, and I looked at it, raised my finger up, like Isaac Newton, and said, ‘I’ve discovered gravity.’
IC: [laughter] Which of course I thought was hilarious.
AH: Michael and Irene hit it off. The pair would go back every year on the anniversary of the date to pick apples from that tree, as they built a relationship based on a shared love of laughter and science.
IC: It was just so easy to talk to you. And you had such a unique perspective on everything. And I think one of your friends characterized it later to me as ‘His mind is just constantly manufacturing jokes,’ because I was like, ‘How am I just laughing at everything he says?’ [laughter]
MS: We dated for a long time. As I was finishing my dissertation, she was going to medical school, doing her dissertation. So we really took an excessively long time to get to know each other as boyfriend-girlfriend before figuring out that we were clearly compatible.
AH: After earning their Ph.D.s, they both taught in their respective fields at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before coming to UCLA at the start of 2020. They live with their two young boys in the faculty-on-campus residence. The two academics enjoyed a cozy life here, but everything was quickly upended in February of 2020 when Michael felt a sudden pain in his back. He had driven himself to the hospital and planned to take a blood thinner to dissolve what he believed had been a clot. But he didn’t return home.
IC: The next day, the doctor, the attending on the floor, called me and said, ‘Your husband coded, and he’s in the ICU right now. He’s unconscious. He’s in a coma.’
AH: Michael had a subarachnoid hemorrhage – a bleed in the space surrounding his brain. He was put on life support.
IC: What happened to Mike was the exterior of the whole brain kind of got compressed, I guess, bruised, and what they were trying to prevent was spasms of the blood vessels, which would close off blood flow and cause a stroke. So that involves multiple procedures, you know, the neurosurgeons going in with a catheter and releasing vasodilator drugs at the right spots, and just to keep the vessels open but not too open, and trying to strike the balance between keeping the right amount of blood flow but also not letting the aneurysm continue to bleed.
AH: On top of all these delicate procedures, Michael was placed in a medically induced coma to prevent the stroke from becoming permanent. Irene was now greeted with a whirlwind of uncertainty.
IC: They kept saying, ‘We have no idea what the outcome is going to be. It could be anything on the scale from totally recovered after a while to, you know, (he) has to be on life support for the rest of his life.’ So you know, there was this uncertainty kind of. At the time, I was talking to people and calling it a Schrödinger’s cat because we just did not know how he was going to come out of that period of time.
AH: Irene and her children relied on each other during those difficult times, finding strength in numbers.
IC: There were, of course, a couple of nights when – Benji is the older one – Benji and I talked and thought about things and tried not to be too scared. I didn’t want to raise their expectations because I think it would have been terrible if I had pretended things were better than they were and then they got crushed. You know, so I just kind of repeated the line of, ‘We really just don’t know.’ I have to say, my older son, I really felt like he helped me through it because he understood what was going on. And so I felt like Benji and I were just really in the same boat there. We kind of survived it together, and yeah.
AH: Irene and her kids found hope in the consistency of positive signs.
IC: But after a while, I think we just all kind of got used to this feeling of dad is in the hospital. The signs are, to the extent that there were any signs, the signs were not negative. They would do scans of his brain, and the scans would come back showing that there was, you know, this kind of trauma, but there wasn’t any death in the brain. And so, all of that was encouraging to the extent that it could be, even if we didn’t know functionally how he was going to be at the end of this.
AH: Three weeks later, Michael came around. Doctors weaned Michael off the coma-inducing medications. He could wave back at his family and started making jokes again, finally giving the family a sense of assurance.
IC: Our 4-year-old Thomas, he said, at one point, ‘Daddy looks weird, but he doesn’t look scary.’ His physical appearance was very different from the last time they had seen him when they went in to see him in the hospital, but, you know, they could recognize him, he could kind of mouth words at that point, not really making very loud sounds, but the kids brought in some art, and he kind of mouthed, you know, ‘What did you bring?’ And so, it was clear he recognized them. Once they started to see him coming back, and we knew that there wasn’t going to be like, you know, any seriously impactful disability or anything like that, then it all felt good.
AH: This story of resilience thus far was just Irene’s experience. From Michael’s perspective, on the other hand, it was a sudden awakening after three weeks of dormancy.
MS: My memory sort of comes online as I’m being wheeled into a hospital rehab center, in a wheelchair, with my eyeballs not working together, and my muscles very weak, not being able to speak, not knowing what happened, just suddenly waking up in this totally different world. And then I was left alone in my room. And I guess I tried to stand up to cross the room or something and just collapsed, dragged myself across the room to my bed, and sort of struggled to pull myself up into it. Still just totally out of place, not knowing what happened or what was going on.
AH: His coma lasted three weeks. He woke up at the start of March 2020, right in line with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
MS: So it was just like a break in the timeline of my existence. Just waking up in a completely other world. The pandemic had just hit while I had been in the hospital with an induced coma. So the world I woke up to was very different, in terms of there not being guests allowed to come and visit at the hospital anymore. And I kept asking myself, did I wake up on the right timeline? Or had I transported to some other dimension?
AH: Waking up from a coma in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic forced Michael to not only come to terms with the changed world he woke up in but also to reorient who he even was – that wasn’t something he had a clear grip on at this point.
MS: One of things I’ve always been really proud of is having a very deep, clear memory, going all the way back to, I think my earliest memories, like one-and-a-half, and having a clear connection to who I was at each different stage of my life. Having that very deep timeline awareness allowed me to sort of make sense of it all. And this was really the first point in my life, where that clear backwards vision was totally scrambled. And I no longer had any perspective on the timeline of my life. I couldn’t tell where I was in that timeline and how far it was back along the timeline to different memories.
AH: Michael recuperated in a rehabilitation room in a care facility in Santa Barbara. There was an added benefit of staying in a closed room, as COVID-19 was just starting to spread rapidly around the world. Each day gave Michael an unprecedented amount of time and space to think about what was happening and to recollect his memories. He explained that these reflections were incredibly vivid, almost like an uncontrollable rollercoaster that transported him to and from different moments of his life.
MS: I suddenly started having very, very deep and vivid memories, from all different periods of my life, like remembering people from my first-grade class, from teenhood, all these different experiences I had not stopped to consider with the crush of work and children and marriage and all the other immediate concerns. So suddenly, all these deep, deep, deep memories were imposing themselves upon my awareness, all at once. And so trying to make sense of the timeline of my life, which was suddenly smushed into a ball of yarn. And trying to untangle that, once again, as I looked through picture boxes to try to figure out, ‘When was this? Where was this? Who was this?’ All these things that had been so clear for so long, suddenly, were scrambled once again and requiring disentangling.
AH: It could’ve easily been a very defeating process. But this experience of piecing together the logic of his life again was something that motivated Michael. And he was able to do it with the assurance that his loved ones were there beside him.
MS: It was overwhelming. It was sort of like when you go to clean off a very messy desk that’s just piles of papers and old bills and old homeworks. And it just seems overwhelmingly complex, so you just make other piles. But slowly, as my mind and memory have worked better and better through time, and as, I guess, the constancy of love provided by family and guidance has gone on, it’s begun to feel less and less. It’s more like the lifting of a fog when you can finally see the horizon again.
AH: A few months after this experience, Michael got to earnestly reflect on what it all meant. He felt like he was given a second chance at life.
MS: My immanent sense of immortality was compromised by this event. And I woke up feeling and aware of my mortality in a profound way that never had occurred to me before. You know, we live our lives unaware to some extent of the possibility of our own death. Because it seems like our death is not something that we will ever experience. But in this case, it’s like I died and came back, in the sense of going through the coma. And so, in some ways, that awareness of the limitations of life became vivid.
AH: Yet he was undaunted by this shock and now instead chooses to treasure what makes the experience rich.
MS: I mean, I’ve always been really grateful for the little things in life. But that’s been so much more magnified, how I can just take joy in a cup of coffee and the rising sun, for example, or reading a book with the kids.
AH: Michael’s internal reflections set him on this new path of gratitude. Like many who have to recuperate from a medical setback, he still had to face a daunting path of physical rehabilitation as well as an immense load of relearning basic tasks. This was especially intimidating given that he had been completely immobile for weeks.
MS: It’s a good comparison to the Benjamin Button movie, which casts a character as being born as an old man and aging in reverse, and that was truly my experience because it felt like I was at life’s end in terms of disability and loss of function, and then going through weekly enormous changes in terms of recovery of function. So it was like aging backwards.
I was not allowed to eat food for a couple weeks or so because, apparently, the ability to swallow had to be relearned. And I had lost that ability to the point that choking or gagging was a severe consideration. So for the first couple of weeks, you know, I was getting fed what I call “nutria goo” as they poured it into this tube that went straight to my stomach. And then, after a couple of weeks, I took an exam that consisted of swallowing something while being monitored by an X-ray to see how well my throat muscles were protecting my lungs, and finally was cleared to eat actual food.
AH: From Irene’s perspective, it was a positive and rewarding sight just to see her husband functioning again. After three weeks of being static and unresponsive, the sight of Michael being awake only had upward promise.
IC: I saw this crash, which he doesn’t remember, but I saw this crash, and it was at this, like, limbo for weeks. And, and then I saw it, like, start to go up really fast. And even though there was, like, a huge territory to cover in terms of his recovery, I could see that trajectory. Whereas he came in at the bottom, and was like, ‘Whoa, how am I gonna get up there?’ It was a huge deal for him to just, like, lift his head up off the pillow. I remember the physical therapists were in the ICU working with him, and they would be like, ‘This is really amazing. He’s doing so great.’ You know, but it would be such a small tiny thing like sitting up.
AH: But even though Irene had such an optimistic perspective having seen the whole picture, Michael couldn’t shake the feelings of discouragement with this new normal that had come so suddenly.
MS: As I was struggling to relearn to walk, to speak, to eat, these other things, I remember feeling so overwhelmingly sad and saying to Irene, ‘I really hope there’s a good ending to this and that things get better.’
AH: His journey to becoming a fully independent person required time and limited disturbances. For Michael and Irene, the hard times were now in the rearview mirror – they were fortunate enough to have the space to heal and grow. This change in perspective was captured in a very emotionally salient moment when Michael was checking out of the rehabilitation facility. As he slowly shuffled along in his walker, barely maintaining his coordination, he asked his wife in slurred speech,
MS: ‘Did they tell you what the prognosis is?’ And she related to my unbelieving ears, ‘Yes, full recovery.’ And those words have echoed in my head, like, ‘Oh, my God, that seems so unlikely from this vantage point.’ [laughter] And sure enough, I’ve taught two courses, we’ve moved a couple times. I’ve reacquired my biking skills.
AH: Recovery is not necessarily one straight path of growth and improvement, and Michael and Irene drew on their love as a source of strength to navigate their own journeys of resilience.
MS: I also explained to her when we first got home, it’s like, ‘I would crawl back from hell, just to be with you.’ [laughter] And that’s kind of what it feels like. Like I’m scaling the walls of a very deep well to get back up to the surface of the earth.
AH: In reflecting on some of the lessons she took from this experience, Irene attributes part of her husband’s triumph to a recent medical advancement.
IC: I was asking the ICU doctor, ‘What drug did they give him that causes bleeding?’ And she said, ‘Eliquis.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, that’s horrible because there’s no reversal agent for Eliquis so he’s going to keep bleeding even if they, you know, really put pressure on his brain.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, just a couple of months ago, they came up with a reversal agent for Eliquis.’ And I was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’ Somebody, somewhere, some scientist had developed a reversal agent, and because they were working hard on that reversal agent, you know, years ago, we had it just in time for him. And it made me think, ‘What are the things that, you know, we as a scientific community are doing now that if we just pushed a little bit faster, we just pushed a little bit harder, we could get those people a few months earlier?’ Because it really makes a difference, you know, even though it seems like, ‘Oh, what difference does it make if there’s a, you know, one-week delay here, or, you know, two weeks of shipping there or whatever?’ But, yeah, it really impacts people.
AH: Irene also reflected on how society seems to offer limited empathy for people experiencing disability or pain.
IC: Seeing Mike go through all of these stages of disability to ability, like, gave me a greater appreciation for the struggles that people go through, and also how we, I think culturally, tend to put the blame for disability onto the person who has it. For people with chronic pain, you can tell that they’re in pain in the acute phase when they first developed this pain – then, you know, people have a kind of sympathetic reaction to them for the pain that they’re experiencing. But after a while, that sympathy kind of goes away because it’s turned into something that is part of that person.
AH: Irene said the experience taught her to see people as four-dimensional beings since people aren’t just what you see in the moment and are the product of accumulated experiences, sometimes very hard experiences. Witnessing her husband’s plunge in loss of function allowed her to recognize the possibilities of people’s struggles, but even more, how one’s strength comes from getting help.
IC: That has helped us, getting beyond that point of like, you know, ‘I don’t want to look like I’m reliant on other people,’ but just kind of acknowledging, ‘OK, we’re reliant on other people. And let’s go with that and lean on them.’
AH: The importance of getting help from others was the same message that Michael wanted to share when I asked him about the most valuable lesson from this experience.
MS: Certainly the love and confidence of those around us is tremendous in giving strength at times when we need it. And at times when I couldn’t believe that there was a road back to normal, hearing it from those around me was enough to keep me going and keep me hopeful.
AH: Thank you for tuning in to Fiat Lux. Many thanks to Irene and Michael for sharing their story with us. Since Michael’s recovery, he has taught two biology courses at UCLA. Irene currently leads the Chen Laboratory in the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, conducting research in nanoscale systems.
This episode was written and edited by Alan Humphreys. Our podcast producer is Zoe Willoughby, and the show’s artwork was done by Katelyn Dang.
Fiat Lux is brought to you by the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. You can listen to this show and others by the Daily Bruin on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud, and be sure to visit dailybruin.com to access show notes and discover more UCLA news.