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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

The Educator I Want to Be

The following entry includes two excerpts from a section of my memoir focused on my diagnosis of a pseudoaneurysm and how it influenced the type of educator I have become and aim to be.

This entry is about when I was diagnosed specifically.

I stopped, grabbing the right side of my neck again. Aggravated by her dismissal, I responded, “The medicine is helping, but I have never had this feeling before and have never been to the emergency for just a migraine. I have a family history of aneurysms, and I would like a scan.”

She paused, clearly irritated, but held firm onto her positive tone. She looked at me and then said, “Ok, I’ll have to talk to my attending to see if she agrees. I’m telling you now that I’m positive it’s just a complex migraine, but I’ll run it by my attending.”

I nodded. “Can you scan my neck, too, to my collarbone? I’ve been having this pain off and on for several months now.”

She looked at me, smiled, and walked off.

I sat there cold, now wide awake after my narcotic-free drug-induced nap, patiently waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. Until an MRI technologist walked by, introduced himself, and calmly escorted me to the depths of the hospital, traveling down brightly lit hallways, sparsely populated workstations, and beige walls. I was no stranger to brain scans at this point - I’d had MRIs and MRAs since I was 16. My grandmother had died from a ruptured brain aneurysm, my aunt has Moyamoya disease, my uncle was rushed to emergency surgery years before due to a subdural hematoma, and my mom had an aneurysm coiled when I was in high school. Needless to say, in 2016, at the age of 28, I was no stranger to neurological conditions at this point in my life. But, of course, thus far, it was only migraines. And this time, it was a CT scan instead of an MRI, something far less noisy and much faster.

They wheeled me back to the hallway, where I’d been sitting for hours by then. The hospital’s bright lights made things, as Doctor Who would say, “Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey.” I had no concept of time, as everything had been perpetually bright at all moments. As we emerged from the tunnels, I watched as more emergent situations echoed between the walls, thankful that all I had arrived with was some mild neck pain and a migraine. As I passed each room, I counted the endless spaces contrasted with the occupied rooms. Some had nurses or doctors aside the people, giving them fluids, taking vitals, or asking questions about their symptoms. I was hopeful that further questioning would take place, giving me answers while simultaneously maintaining the same level of hope that it was nothing but a simple migraine that just felt a little different.

The calm technologist carefully parked me back in the spot I had left. The medication had already worn off, so a nap was out of the question. Not an hour passed, and the same resident who had been to work with me excitedly bounced back, smiling still and with a note of excitement in her voice. By now, it was just after midnight.

“Great news! Your scans came back, and they’re all clear. As I suspected, it was just a complex migraine.”

The anxiety I had been housing in my chest sank into my stomach and quickly dissipated. Thank God, I thought.

She followed up with, “We’re going to discharge you now. Make an appointment with your primary doctor to learn how to manage your migraines better,” and off she went. Relieved, I rested my head against the hospital pillow, patiently waited for my discharge papers, and took a breath. They gave me one final round of fluids and I was discharged at 10:24.

When we left the hospital, it was just after 10:30pm, and I was hungry. Aside from a small side of onion rings around 3:30 pm, I hadn’t eaten. My mom took me to a fast food drive-thru; we ordered food, sat in the car, and ate. There was an air of happiness, likely from the good news that I was in the clear. After we finished, my mom dropped me off at home, just after midnight, and my poor, sweet son was still awake, lying beside his sleeping dad and sister.

My worried 4-year-old self had forced himself to stay awake waiting for me, anxious and knowing I was at the hospital. As I walked through the door, his little body climbed off the bed and ran up to me, hugging me. We cuddled; I told him Mommy was okay and I had to shower. Several days prior, I had purchased a shower speaker, which was sanctioned against my shower wall. I connected my phone to it so my son and I could listen to some of our favorite music, him dancing in the bedroom, waiting for me as I showered. As the hot water hit my head, it trickled down my back as I sat on the floor, and I stayed talking to my son through the gently cracked door, reassuring him that I was there; then, my shower speaker blared the ringing of my phone. Sure, it was my mom calling to ask a question since it was now close to 1:00 am, and there was no reason another human would need to call me outside of an emergency; I answered the call.

“Mom?” I asked, unable to discern the voice and words on the other end of the call.

“No, this is,” and the connection crackled, causing a moment of silence. Then I heard, “With the emergency room. Is this Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk?”

I paused, my heart sank, and I shut the water off.

“Hello? Hello, yes? Yes, this is Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk.”

With sopping wet hair, I climbed out of the shower, water collecting in a puddle on the floor.

“Hi yes, this is Dr. Lyra, with the hospital. I’m calling because we need you to return to the emergency room.”

Another pause.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I’m so sorry, but we need you to return to the emergency room. We’ve found an abnormality on your scan. When you get here, go to the front desk and let them know so that we can get you to the back as quickly as possible.”

“Uhhh…” I had no idea what to say. “I’m… ok. Thank you.”

My heart started pounding, standing drenched in the bathroom, only a towel lightly draped across me. I stared in the mirror, my door still only slightly cracked open.

“Mommy… mommy. Who was that?”

A level of fear and anxiety ripped through my chest, enveloping my entire body and debilitating me into a frozen state. My children. I grabbed the towel so tight my knuckles lost all color, and my throat felt as if it had closed. Still staring into the mirror, I shook my head, cleared my throat, and finally found the courage to respond.

“It was the doctor’s. They want me to come back because they want to do a few more things.”

“But Mommy you’re home now.”

I quickly got dress, my clothes sticking to my wet body, now damp themselves, and I walked into the bedroom. I sat on the edge of the bed and hugged him, holding him close.

“I know, baby, but I need to go back to make sure that I’m okay. They forgot to do a few things. So I need to call Grandma and tell her to come get me so you can go back to sleep with Dad and Sister.”

He nodded, trying to process and understand, and hugged me back. He climbed over the blankets and laid down, watching me move as I paced, trying to figure out what to do next. Realizing I had to call my mom, I picked up my phone, shaking, and called my mom.

“Mom… I need you to come back and get me.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Because the hospital just called, and they said I have an abnormality in my brain.”

“Shit.” She hung up, and I knew I just needed to wait. I stared at my son, who was staring at me with every move. I reached my arms out and waved him over to me, being met with his sweet smile. He excitedly got up, ran to me, and hugged me. Time had suspended momentarily, holding him while keeping back tears, terrified. As we sat down, giggling and playing, I saw my phone light up and my mom’s number flashing across the screen. I stared at my baby girl, sleeping, unaware of the chaos that was ensuing, her little 2-year-old self piercing her lips. I walked to her, kissed her on her cheek and hugged her, and gave my son another hug good night.

As I walked out the door, I watched my son climb back under the covers, and I locked the door behind me. Tears started streaming down my face as I entered my mom’s car. We both sat in silence. My mind immediately transported me to 2003, when I was in high school. I was home alone after school, and the phone rang. I innocently answered the call.

“Hello? May I please speak with Ms. Monk?” the voice on the other line asked, referring to my mother.

“She’s not here right now, may I ask who is speaking?”

“Yes, this is Dr. Paul, and I’m calling because I needed to let her know that she has an abnormality in her MRI.”

Being only 15, I had no idea how to respond, but said, “Ok, thank you, I will let her know.”.The doctor replied firmly but compassionately, “Thank you, but do you have any questions?”

What does a 15-year-old ask? “No, thank you, though.”

Waiting for my mom at the time, I remember the anxiety, the worry, and the concern of having to tell my mom. And when I did, I remember watching the world implode in her own eyes and mind, likely similar to how I felt at that exact moment in my mom’s car in 2016.

I snapped myself out of the mental time travel, back to the reality that I was sitting in my mom’s car on the way to the hospital. Cars were sparse on the freeway. I was exhausted but energized by the anxiety coursing through my body. I prayed this was not my reality while also hoping that I could arrive instantaneously at the hospital. The sooner I got there, the sooner I would know what exact abnormality was housed in my brain. A few tears would fall from my eyes. As we arrived at the hospital, I took a deep breath, panicked, frantic, but also calm. I grabbed my bag and walked back up to the same hospital from where I had been discharged several hours earlier. Everything was surreal.

The next section is from the same chapter of my memoir but provides insight into how this influenced my teacher journey.

Rewind a while when I shared that I was several days out from my graduation ceremony. So, several days later, on the morning of May 13, 2016, I woke up with a pounding migraine. A wave of existential dread washed over me, nearly drowning me.

Why should I even bother?

At this point, I had no idea why it mattered to walk. I was terrified of death. I sat near the wall on the living room floor, watching my two young children play. My daughter, who was 2 years old and several months old, and my son, who was 4 and a half, laughed from their bellies, running around with endless energy, and had little knowledge of what was happening in my head - physically and mentally.

I need to spend as much time with them as possible.

The fear of death, the questioning of my existence, and the worry that I would leave my two children, who are my world, closely attached to me, loving me with almost every ounce of their being, and who I loved beyond that, was a constant fear of mine. My headache merely compounded this fear.

Over several hours, I slowly got myself ready. The medications I typically took for migraines were useless at this point: they were a danger to my life, and, in turn, I could not take them. I had to suffer with this pain, which served as a constant reminder of my weakened artery. Every move, pain in my neck, and tingling in my fingers panicked me. I almost didn’t walk - but my family convinced me to.

So, shortly around 6:30 pm, I arrived at the gym where my graduation ceremony would occur. I remember sitting among my peers, a group with whom I was not too close, and internally screaming because of the bright lights, the overcrowded gymnasium, and the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy.

One of my mentors, who was also the most influential faculty member,  shared a heartwarming speech, and if I had been in a better mindset, I probably would have allowed it to embrace my heart, warming my soul, but the feeling of potential death still had its grips deep into my core.

I can appreciate his words now, in hindsight, where he said, “If, as sociology majors, you ever had people ask you what you’re doing to do with your degree, tell them, ‘I’m going to change the world.’” These words would impact me years later as I realized the importance of understanding professors and knowing the importance of systems and structures, but in that moment, I felt despair.

Photos from that night show both my emotional and physical pain. I still remember both myself as I reflect from so many years ago. In hindsight, I maintain those moments of pride now, remembering that I was the first in my family to receive my MA, being first-generation for my BA (and later my PhD.) And despite the pain and the devastation, I still went where my children are in photographs, even if their memories of that day are minimal.

But that moment and the months after were rife with heartache. The resentment hurled at me when I chose a different educational path due to the aneurysm, so much so that it resulted in the denial of letters of recommendation, still stings and serves as a reminder that I never want to do that to my students. The hesitation and panic of whether I wanted to complete an entire thesis when I was preparing for what the doctors would call “Basically brain surgery” pushed me to slow down and appreciate my life more, never valuing productivity over time with my family.

I constantly reflect on my practices as an educator, and while I am far from perfect, I know that. I know that I have the potential to harm my students and that my research and my class will never be more important than their literal lives. In tandem with my childhood experience, these moments propelled me to dig deeply into pedagogy, participatory research, and ways to reimagine better systems. Because, despite the inequitable interactions and abuse of power, I still had to finish this degree while managing life as a parent and having a dissection in my left internal carotid artery.

On July 13, 2016, I went to the hospital, assuming my surgery would be simple enough. Yet, when I checked in, they explained I would have to stay overnight.

“I’m… I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand,” I said, confused as I had been told this was an outpatient procedure.

“Well, normally a cerebral angiogram would be, but you’re essentially having brain surgery and we have to monitor you.”

My heart sank. Aside from an occasional stay at my mom’s, I had never been out of the house from my children overnight. I hadn’t had a chance to say bye, to tell them I loved them as they were asleep, and the fear hit me again. What if I die and I don’t get to see them one last time?

I was escorted to the back and waited the entire day, but it was closer to 30 minutes. They had me undress and sit down in a wheelchair, and then they escorted me to the procedure room. The room was far from welcoming; there was a large MRI machine, a flat table, and so many doctors.

I lay down on the mildly cushioned machine, where there was a hospital pillow where I would rest my head. My doctor had a phenomenal bedside manner. He held my hand as I started to cry before the procedure started. The anxiety that I had felt months ago was back with a vengeance, running throughout my fingers and toes, and I’m pretty convinced even my teeth. He looked at me, kept eye contact, and calmly and gently explained every step he would do throughout the procedure, and then explained that he would restate them as the procedures began.

My head resting on the pillow, I laid flat, my legs extended and arms to my side. My arms were tucked lightly under my body, keeping me from moving too much. Physical warmth overtook me as they injected the contrast dye into my right arm, followed by a blood thinner, when one nurse said, “I’ve just administered the Heparin.”

Laying on the procedural table, I felt immense pressure as they entered my femoral artery, punching my skin and tissue so they could navigate my arterial system to inch closer and closer to my left internal carotid artery. I watched on a monitor to the left of me as they slowly began the process of placing a stent inside of my brain. To ensure that I did not lose any cognitive function, I was awake for the entire procedure.

Immediately following the placement of the stent, my entire right side became numb, and my fingers tingled.

“Um, hello?” I asked.

“Yes? Is everything okay?”

“So, uh, my first side just immediately started tingling. Is this, uh, well, is this normal?”

“Yes, the blood flow has not increased since we immediately placed the stent. It’s like opening gates - give it a few minutes, and if you still have the feeling, let us know.”

I remained calm and breathed; they were right, and the feeling subsided.

I took a breath as I lay resting. Eventually, they wheeled me to my room. The reality of what happened hit when I had one of the residents come in to check on me.

“How are you doing, Charlene?”

“I’m doing okay, but, I have a bit of a headache.”

“Well, yes, that is to be expected. You essentially had brain surgery.”

I paused, realizing that he was right: I essentially had brain surgery.

I would go on to start a nonprofit, complete a comprehensive exam on it, finish my degree in December 2016, and then start teaching in January 2017. In the second semester of my master’s program, I was on bedrest because I went into premature labor at 30 weeks, and to prevent my daughter from being born too early, I wasn’t supposed to do much of anything. I then ended my master’s program with a pseudoaneurysm. Despite everything, I managed to finish it, but it wasn’t without struggle. In reality, academia is not necessarily designed for everybody, but that does not mean they should be that way. In fact, as educators, it should be our job to challenge these systems and allow students who desire to learn more, grow, and change the world to be in an environment that would foster their abilities and skills to do just that.

This experience during my time made me realize that the educators understood that my moments of struggle, hesitation, and pause were not indicative of my ability to be a scholar but instead were the realities of being human. Yet, so often, students are seen as mere students whose sole role is to sit in a classroom and admire the class as the number one priority rather than as humans capable of critically thinking and engaging and appreciating the opportunity to teach.

I promised myself that I would become an educator who attempted to embody in my pedagogy the theories and philosophies that I hold so dear to my heart: the values that question social structures, aim to transform experiences and ones that realize the lived experience is beyond a textbook. While the expertise and training in degree programs are valuable and necessary, we forget that what we read may not reflect the true realities of the world, and simply because we can recite theory does not mean that we embody true equity in our interactions. This fact was on my face throughout my entire educational journey and medical experiences, and I reflect on it regularly.

The objectification of patients and students was evident during this period of my life, and sadly, the practice is still clear. Another reality is that this moment also showed me the complexities of identity and how these complexities are often not represented in books and theory but are clear within our everyday lives and those of our students.

I was Korean until the 2nd grade, and then again when I was diagnosed with this dissection due to the genetic mutation for Moyamoya and a specific one connected to those with Korean and Japanese heritage. The fragility of life was a clear and constant reminder that there are more important things than grades, research, and publications, and this recurring theme of my life absolutely shaped me to be the educator I want to be.

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