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Monday, October 6, 2008

Maimah Karmo, Fearless Female and Lover of Life!


Maimah Karmo was born in Liberia, West Africa. She survived three coup d’etats in her country and while her family lost everything in Liberia’s war, she had a relentless and winning attitude that she could face and overcome any and every obstacle, that is until breast cancer came knocking. In Part I of this interview, Maimah gets very real and vulnerable with LADYBRILLE.com as she takes us through her journey prior to and up till the point she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

LADYBRILLE.com: [Maimah & I are chatting about the relaxing Sunday we are having. She is telling me the importance of having down-time and how she stayed in her PJ’s till 1pm. It is about 3pm East Coast Time and 12:00pm California time when we begin the interview].

LADYBRILLE.com:
[The interview begins] Maimah, your experience with breast cancer is such an interesting story and I thought it was really important we feature you, especially with your African heritage, so African women can be tuned into the need for self breast examinations. Share with us what life was like before [breast cancer]?
Maimah: Well like most women, I worked a lot. I was young, progressive. I am from Liberia. We [her family & her] came here in 1989 for vacation when the last Coup d’etat happened in Liberia. Our “vacation” turned into a permanent situation because of the war and our homes getting destroyed, which is the story of many people in Africa. But, my parents always taught me that those things didn't define me or who I was. Being a good person inside and having the right spirit and attitude is what would define my life and I could create a home anywhere. So, we lost everything and went from living a very comfortable life to living in a one bedroom apartment. [She begins counting the number of persons who lived in the apartment] me, my mother, father, my four brothers, my grandmother and two cousins. Can you imagine that?

LADYBRILLE.com: [ I respond] Hmmm . . .
Maimah: But, it never fazed me. It was like, “Okay. Next step. Things happen. Get over it and move forward.” I just turned 16 [when I] got here [USA]. My father always taught me . . . he said “the cream always rise to the top and you are gonna be the cream and you are gonna always rise.” I know you are young and you are supposed to go to college. [She transitions to a different train of thought] We lived off my college tuition and we used all the money. So, I got like two jobs immediately and at some point, three jobs at 16 and 17 years. When I applied for jobs, I would say I was 18. Now that I look back now, I say [she is laughing] “Who was that little girl?!”

LADYBRILLE.com: [I laugh with her] I know.
Maimah: I was also helping take care of my mother because she was ill?

LADYBRILLE.com: [in a curious tone] What was the cause of her illness?
Maimah: [a bit contemplative] She just had a lot of health problems and she came here before the war to get treatment. She just had you know [pauses] we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her but she wasn’t working for some time. I use to work, help my brothers do their homework, [go] to work, come home. I took care of her. After a while, she got better and she worked and my dad worked and so I was always like progressive. I gotta get things done. Eventually, I got a secretarial work, then I went to community college, then I worked 2-3 jobs, got into George mason University and I worked for a while. I paid for my college, cash no loans.

LADYBRILLE: Whoa!
Maimah: I helped my parents while I was going to school. I took the bus to school and took it home. Many days I used to sit in the cold at the bus stop and freeze when the bus was late or chase the bus down. One time, I missed the bus and was trying to get to this temporary job that I had so I hitched a ride in a milk truck. [laughs]

LADYBRILLE.com [I laugh with her and exclaim] Milk truck!
Maimah:[She gives a little squeal while laughing] I mean I just like was relentless. I was trying to finish my degree so I could be successful.

LADYBRILLE.com: [I laugh but my curiosity has me serious again] What made you so driven? I was in New York for Fashion Week and I got a chance to visit my friend who is also a fashion model, Hawa. She is taking care of twelve people! I don’t know how people like that do it?! It sounds like your case. Where did you get that drive and how did you do it? Most of us are barely trying to take care of ourselves.
Maimah: [She is pensive] I feel like I have a responsibility. I feel like when you are put on this earth, that is a blessing, an honor. God put you here for a purpose so you can be the best you can be. I feel like if you are into yourself, you can’t help anyone else. I also feel [we] are responsible for others. Even you who I don’t know, I feel a connection to you. You are like my sister. You are my soul sister, not soul as in Black but as in God, and so our responsibility is to enhance others through our spirit and when we have the gift.

You know how the church says we are all part of the body, one body. I, you, your sister, friends, my daughter we are all part of this one body, even strangers [are] to me. Our job is to be the best and enhance other parts of the body. So, I feel responsibility [towards] other people and I have always felt that way since I was a child. I don’t feel responsibility as in, “Oh my God it is a burden.” [in a happy tone she says] I love doing that. I love when I can help pull somebody up and see them smile, where that have a light in their eyes, they are inspired, successful. That gives me tremendous joy.

LADYBRILLE.com: [in a reflective tone] It sounds like you have spent so much time, even in your youth, being an adult, and doing all these work. But, I really don’t hear anything through all these about you taking care of yourself. You are working three jobs, doing this, doing that, taking care of everybody etc. How were you taking care of yourself prior to breast cancer and how has that changed? [I laugh and say] It is sort of a multi-layer question.

Maimah:[In a serious tone] The first part, you are right. I was not taking care of myself. I was taking care of myself by eating right but that is not the only thing you need to do. Being a woman, in the African community as a mother, you are the pillar of the family. You are in control, you are in charge. You cook, clean, take care of the house, guests, you have to be attractive, people come to you for advice, you take care of five or ten people, the grandmother, the dad's family. etc. So, we tend to neglect ourselves quite often and that manifest itself in health problems.

I don’t remember being a child. I always was responsible. You are right. [laughs] You are good at what you do for noticing that. We African women put ourselves under a lot of stress and we neglect to take time to rest and we feel we are being selfish to think of ourselves. Since I have gotten breast cancer and survived, I do more things for myself than I used to [b]ecause I realize by honoring myself is the only way I can stay alive and be healthy. My mother, I compliment her for giving me life through birth and saving my life. She taught me at a young age to do my own breast examinations. She was a nurse. I didn't want to do it. I was very embarassed but I did it and later on in life, I felt a lump on my breast at 32years old. I actually had found a lump the previous year. I went to the doctor, she examined me, did a mammogram and the radiologist said it appeared to be a cyst. Cysts are not hard per se. I [asked] the doctor if it is a cyst why is it not aspirating?

LADYBRILLE.com: [Curious tone] What do you mean by aspiration for some of us who might not understand?
Maimah: Oh! [ She responds] Aspiration is if you put a needle into the breast, if it is a cyst, the water will come out and dissipate. If it is a tumor, it will be harder and the water will not come out.

LADYBRILLE.com: Let me take you back to when you felt the lump. What was your reaction?
Maimah: When I first felt the lump, I felt this is not new but it was hard. My heart was thumping and everything got darker and I thought, "Oh my God."I called my mother and she was like, “go get it checked right away.” My doctor kept insisting saying you are too young, you don’t have any history. But, my intuition. I thought and felt that something was wrong with me but I was under a lot of stress at the time. I was a single mom, working, going to school, engaged at the time.

It was so much stress and I thought okay maybe it was stress but all that contributes to your health. [M]y hair was falling out and I was having night sweats. So I knew something was wrong with me because I was always tired all the time. On the weekends my daughter and I would go out and do stuff but more and more on weekends, I will sleep all day and not get off the couch and that was not me. So, when she said to come back in six months, I waited and I went back and it felt bigger and it was growing. So, now I told her let’s do a biopsy now. I really feel we should.

LADYBRILLE.com: [in an irritated and inquisitive tone] Why didn’t she think of doing a biopsy back then?
Maimah:She said “no." She said, "I am not going to do that?”

LADYBRILLE.com: Was her refusal related to the kind of health plan you had? Was it covered? HMO? I find that when it comes to health care for minorities, black and Africans, it is like we are treated like we are dumb and don’t know what we are talking about.
Maimah:Yes. She did talk down to me and she said I was being vain. She kind of just patronized me. She said you are young, a new mom and a pretty girl. Why are you worried about this lump? Just forget about it. Leave it alone. I told her, no I can’t. It worries me. I think for one thing being a black woman, second, being young and third I am under 40. The health care industry preaches women under 40 don’t get breast cancer. So I think for all those reasons, she ignored me. [In an excited tone explaining things] See doctors forget that each patient is unique and they have a prescription mentality. They see you, assess your statistics and then they diagnose you forgetting that you an individual. So, she thought young, no history, eats well, had a child two years ago, you know whatever, “come back in six months.” I can’t tell you how many friends I have who are now metastatic [Metastatic means breast cancer is spread out of your breast, bones, liver, spine, brain, your other organs] because of this “come back in six months” BS.

LADYBRILLE.com: [ I am stunned] Wow!Going back to your doctor. You come back in six months, you feel a hard lump on your breast and you say I don't feel comfortable this is getting harder. What happens next?
Maimah: She kept insisting on re-aspiration. I kept saying “no”. I need to have a biopsy. She says go tell the nurse to schedule you. I went to the nurse and she scheduled me for an aspiration/biopsy. The doctor came in there and I said, "I know you have an aspiration but I want a biopsy and I am not going to leave without one." She says, "why are you doing this? You don’t need this." She tried to talk me out of it.

LADYBRILLE.com:[In an angry and suprised tone] Are you kidding me?

Maimah: Yeah. She said, "why do you want to do this? I told you you don’t need to have this. It is a waste of time." I [insisted] she did it. The next day she called me on February 28th, 2006 at 4:45pm. She called me at work, then she called my cell and then she called my work phone again. As soon as I saw her number I knew I had breast cancer. I just knew because they never call you that quickly. I was in a conference call and I didn't answer the phone and I knew that will be the last normal thing I do before my life changed. I mean I have always been very in control of my life since I was a young girl. I had a vision, I had a five year plan. I was a go-getter. I had a plan A and plan B and this was not even in my plan C. I finished my conference called. She called my cell phone and then she called my work and I picked up and I knew and she said, "Maimah you are right, you have breast cancer." I just dropped the phone. I looked at my daughter's pictures because I love her and she is all over my wall and I said, “ I am so sorry I did this to you.”

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

2 comments:

Fly Girl said...

This is so upsetting! The American healthcare system is a joke. I can't believe she had to demand that her doctor do what a caring and concerned medical professional would not have hestitated with. I'm so glad that he followed her intuition. Maimah is a wonderful example of a strong African woman. Thanks so much for exposing the often supressed story of how black women are frequently treated in the American healthcare system. It's a wonderful lesson on taking care of ourselves and not allowing others to dictate our lives.

The Invisible Man said...

Nice blog

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