Our #WCW this week, Dr. Zarina Ali, found medicine as her calling at a young age—something she realized as early as first grade while doing a school project onElizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Little did she know that decades later, she would be making history as well, by becoming the first female neurosurgeon in Pennsylvania Hospital’s 266-year history.
While medicine was a calling, neurosurgery, however, was an interest she developed much later, largely as a result of seeking out and engaging with several great mentors. Now, a mentor to many residents and students herself, Dr. Ali is “paying it forward” to encourage aspiring neurosurgeons to pursue the field she loves so much. In this #wcw feature, I got a chance to talk to the inspiring mother of three (soon to be four!) about a typical day in her jam-packed life, how she handles implicit biases in the field, and even her most memorable case, which involves performing awake brain surgery on a singer.
A Day in Her Shoes
For starters, a typical surgical day for Dr. Ali can start as early as 5:30 AM and can end as late as 10 PM. An early-bird, she welcomes this, beginning her day with meditation and prayer, followed by spending time with her children, and is usually out the door by 6:30 AM. Once at the hospital, she reviews charts and meets with patients before they go to the operating room (OR) and by 8 AM, Dr. Ali is ready to scrub in. The rest of the day is spent in the OR performing surgery, teaching, and instructing neurosurgery residents from the University of Pennsylvania, and rounding on patients. She says:
I have phenomenal neurosurgery residents from the University of Pennsylvania and I take great pride in teaching them how to perform surgery effectively and, almost more importantly, educating them on the indications, risks and benefits of surgery.
If you’re wondering when she eats, she usually doesn’t have time for a sit-down lunch, but instead, tries to eat between cases. Throughout the day, she also has to do the clinical paperwork required to care for patients and also takes the time to discuss each patient’s surgery and care plan with other doctors, both within and outside the hospital, as well as with nurses and staff. As for when she ends her day, Dr. Ali says it really depends.
That can vary on a day-to-day basis…I believe in taking as much time as is necessary to perform a surgery effectively and safely. For some, that means a quick procedure, and for others, a longer operative time. Therefore, flexibility is key. For me, that means having the childcare in place that allows me to come home at 5 PM on some days, and 10 PM on other days. I make use of technology to touch base with my nanny and husband and rely on things like Whatsapp and FaceTime to make sure my other responsibilities are aligned appropriately. I live by the words of Ben Franklin, ‘‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Her Medical Upbringing
Dr. Ali was interested in medicine at a very early age, partly due to having parents who were both physicians and being inspired by their work ethic.
They were practicing physicians in India and they moved to America when I was one. They were undergoing their residency when I was in elementary school and I remember how hard they worked during that time. My mom, in particular, was in residency training, raising four kids, putting a hot Indian meal together every night, and studying late at night. It still amazes me.
As for her intellectual curiosity, that too was nurtured by her parents.
My parents were keen on making sure my siblings and I figured things out on our own. So, being interested in science and medicine, I would naturally ask them a question about why our body does this or that. My parents’ response? “Look it up in Harrison’s (Principles of Internal Medicine).” Now, I could barely understand the words in that giant text, but it actually ended up being an important life lesson in reinforcing the need to learn to seek education and find answers. They planted the seeds of basic scientific inquiry; if you don’t know something, it’s incumbent on you to try and figure it out and find out the answer to your questions.
The Importance of Mentorship
Dr. Ali credits her continued journey in medicine and her interest in neurosurgery to her many mentors along the way. She was in a direct undergraduate-to-medical program at the University of Rochester, called the Rochester Early Scholar Program. This granted her admission, at the age of 17, to both the undergraduate college and medical school. Under the guidance of Dr. G. Edward Vates, she developed an interest in neurosurgery and neurosurgical research, leading to an additional Master’s degree in Neurobiology and Neuroanatomy.
Vates was the first to introduce me to the neurosurgical operating room. With his faculty mentorship, I helped develop a neurosurgery research interest group. I cannot underestimate the value of seeing neurosurgery being performed in helping to guide my career specialty choice in medicine. There is truly no other specialty quite like neurosurgery. It was obvious to me that I wanted nothing else.
Others important mentors during her medical education includedHoward Silberstein andWeb Pilcher, whom she says were extremely supportive and invited her to their OR and clinics. When she ultimately joined her residency program at Penn, she had another series of outstanding leaders in the field who taught her everything about the practice of neurosurgery, from the technical perspective to the patient care perspective, and from an academic leadership perspective. Now, she finds herself incredibly privileged to call work with her former mentors as colleagues.
The learning process in medicine never ends. So it’s really important at all stages in the process to have trusted colleagues and mentors with whom you can discuss cases and outcomes and ways to improve. Medicine is not a static field by any means and neurosurgery, in particular, is ever-changing. One can only get better at something if you can review it critically, ask the appropriate questions, and try to find innovative ways to improve.
One of her most memorable cases was a 29-year-old singer named Zachary Williams who had developed episodes of speech arrest secondary to having a large tumor in the left frontal lobe. Unfortunately for him, this tumor was sitting in the language centers of his brain, which can sometimes lead one to lose the ability to speak altogether. Dr. Ali decided to do a unique operative procedure calledawake brain surgery, which occurs while a patient’s head is open and the patient is simultaneously performing neuropsychological tasks to make sure language function is preserved.
It was really special for me because it reminded me of the great privilege that we have, as doctors, to take care of patients like this. How many 29-year-olds do you know that have undergone awake brain surgery? The resilience and courage of my patients is a constant reminder of what matters most. Zach was a singer. And I did not want him to leave that operating room without the ability to sing. So, after we did all the typical tests for language function testing, including reciting the alphabet and numbers, we handed him a microphone, and I told him to sing, while I removed his tumor. It was unforgettable.
Williams then went on to publish a song called “Meant to Live” and even wrote ablog post about his experience on the Brain Tumor Society Blog.
I was so proud that he was able to recover so well and that he used his experience in such a positive way to promote endurance and resilience in others.
Despite the strides made over the past few decades to close the gender gap in medicine, women still represent only 5% of practicing neurosurgeons certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery (ABNS). In many specialties, women physicians continue to face awage gap a large as $20,000 a year compared to their male counterparts. Added to these explicit disparities are more subtle implicit biases in the workplace which many professional women in typically male-dominated fields must overcome. This can range anywhere from patients not realizing that a woman is their surgeon, to not being considered for leadership positions or being excluded from male spaces.
I’ve certainly had experiences of bias from patients, staff members in the hospital, and patient family members. Yes, it’s 2017, but like it or not, some people still find it hard to believe that a relatively young woman can be their physician, let alone, neurosurgeon. However, getting too wrapped up into the fact that this disparity exists steers me away from what I spent all these years training to do—take care of patients. So, while there’s a time and a place to recognize and address these disparities, for me, first and foremost, is being a good neurosurgeon, no matter my gender, race, religion.
Dr. Ali uses positivity to overcome implicit biases present in medicine and surgery.
At the end of the day, I think actions speak louder than words. Being good at what you do, taking a sincere interest in the best care for your patients—those things ultimately matter more than what you look like.
What do you enjoy doing in the rare chance that you get spare time?
I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. My husband, Umar, and I have a growing family of little men, including my 4-year-old, Zia, 2-year-old identical twin boys, Zayd and Zayn, and a fourth baby boy on the way. I definitely have enough to do taking care of and spending time with all these important men in my life. When not busy with them, I do enjoy exploring new restaurants with friends, singing karaoke, cooking, and travelling.
What is a quote that resonates with you?
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven played music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Doesn’t matter what you do – but give it your all, and be proud of it.
If you had the opportunity, what would be on chef Dr.Ali’s menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Well, I’m pregnant right now, so probably not a fair question! But here’s what it would be right now:
Breakfast: I have both a sweet tooth and salty tooth, so I’d say stuffed French toast for the sweet tooth, and huevos rancheros and shakshuka for the salty option.
Lunch: A little bit more tough for me because I rarely have a sit-down lunch. I guess I would go for all types of ethnic foods – including thai, greek, and mediterranean options.
Dinner: Hyderabadi biryani. I’m from a place in India called Hyderabad—and we make the best biryani! Add a side of yogurt and Hyderabadi eggplant dish, bagara baingan. Yummm.
Dessert: Rasmalai and Budinos. Of course I can’t forget dessert! As far as Indian dessert, my favorite dessert is rasmalai which is a milk-based sweet ricotta dish. I also love a special Philly dessert called a budino from one of my favorite restaurants, Barbuzzo.
And finally, who is your Brown Girl crush or someone you look up to?
I don’t want this to sound cliché, but my mom is one of the biggest influences on me. She was one of 11 children, and she immigrated with my dad to the US, away from their home and families to give my siblings and I better opportunities and education. I continue to look up to her to this day. She still practices medicine and she has been my number one supporter and is hugely impactful in my life.
Check out the #LooksLikeASurgeon conversation on Twitter to join in breaking the gender stigma.
Sruveera is a recent graduate of William & Mary where she majored in Neuroscience and minored in Public Health. Before medical school, she is pursuing a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and serving in her local community whenever she gets the chance. With community engagement as a driving force throughout her life, she hopes to one day combine her background in medicine, love of public service, and strong advocacy to enact systemic changes in the healthcare system and beyond.
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to publish this short story by the brilliant writer Ria Mazumdar. This story delves into very deeply important and timely themes of assimilation, family, mental health, and familial obligations.
Trigger warning: Self-harm and suicide.
America just didn’t have the right supply of spices, Neel thought as he scanned the towering aisles of the grocery store for the third time. White fluorescent overhead lights illuminated the vast shelves, which contained over three different brands of ground black pepper. While cardamom, let alone coriander powder, was nowhere to be found. On a daring day, Americans would venture to purchase paprika, which was about as seasoned as their cuisine would get. Although he had spent years in this country, the aroma of his home — an exquisite blend of turmeric, cumin, and freshly monsoon-drenched earth — still haunted Neel’s memory as he sighed into the dry, stale, air-conditioned atmosphere of the American supermarket. The same land that was supposed to grant him more constitutional rights had also robbed him of his sensory joys.
Resigned, he loaded up the metal shopping cart with ground pepper and paprika, wheeling it toward the cash register. A foreboding premonition rose to the front of his mind: without the right spices, his cooking just wouldn’t turn out right, and his wife Rana would break into tears, launching into her routine tirade. Paprika was one of many triggers of homesickness. She would rage against the frigid winters of Massachusetts and lament the absence of her family, telling him how much she regretted ever meeting him. Neel mentally prepared himself for this reaction as he braced himself to exit the store, walking headfirst into the harsh New England chill.
The pristine plains outside the supermarket stretched endlessly, as silent flakes cascaded down like sunbeams in the moonlight. As he clenched the thin plastic bags with his gloved hands, Neel proceeded toward his used Toyota Camry. The wind snarled mercilessly, tearing through the night like a whip, bearing no consideration for Neel’s circumstances. It did not recognize that he was a foreigner who had not seen snow until the age of 30, when he was tossed headlong into this abrasive climate, greeted by raging frost on a frigid December dusk. Though the walk was short, Neel trembled to the bone, pulling the diaphanous fabric of his navy blue Big Lots jacket closer to his skin. He was well aware that the flimsy, six-dollar garment was completely inadequate protection, but every penny he earned had to go toward a soft, down jacket for his small daughter.
The thought of his daughter gave him the adrenaline he needed to prevail against the hissing wind. One foot in front of another, he trudged cautiously along the snowy path, seeing nothing but a flat expanse of white before him. In the distance, a streetlamp cast a bluish glow. Finally, he reached the car and opened the door hastily, leaping inside to preserve every drop of heat. Arranging the groceries carefully on the seat beside him, he put the key in the ignition, immediately turning on the cassette player.
Barely any cars had cassette players these days, but Neel had gone out of his way to install one specifically so that he could listen to his old tapes from home. Familiar melodies were his only company on these long, solitary drives, providing stolen moments of tranquility. He emptied his mind, following the undulating roads from muscle memory, erasing any obligations to the outside world. The lyrics of his mother tongue washed over him like lukewarm water.
Sinking into a familiar tune lined with the rising drone of a harmonium, Neel came to a stoplight, drifting in this rare state of mental peace. Suddenly, two loud knocks rammed on the car’s rear window. Neel rolled down the window, seeing two men in the shadows. They were pale-skinned, dressed in extra-large gray hoodies and baggy black sweatpants, rapping at the car rambunctiously — the vapor of their breath emerging in wispy, smoke-like clouds. “Hey, sand n****r!” one yelled. “We don’t need another 9/11, go back to where you came from!”
The light turned green, as though it wanted to let Neel escape, and he stepped firmly on the gas, leaving the men’s laughter trailing in the distance. A small American flag ruffled halfheartedly on the dashboard, just above Neel’s brand new U.S. passport stowed in between the seats.
Neel drove on, feeling more resignation than anger. Such incidents were nothing short of expected for someone coming into this great country, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were granted to all, as long as they read the fine print. Racism and liberty — it was a package deal. Neel internalized each of these encounters as an exam, an opportunity to prove his stoic nature. He had adapted to his new life. Anyway, with whom could he share such experiences? The last real conversation he had with Rana occurred even before their wedding when he still lived under the euphoric illusion that his parents had discovered the right girl for him. Now, he dreaded seeing his daughter if he knew Rana would be around as well. Maybe someday the little girl could help shoulder some of this burden. Until then, he kept his chin up and moved along, expressionless.
He pulled into the garage, grabbed the groceries and steadied himself before stepping into the doorway. Old photos of his parents greeted him; the only fixtures on the white walls. His daughter, darting through the simply-furnished living room, ran up to hug his calf. He smiled and picked her up, twirling her around a couple of times.
“Want to help me unpack the groceries?” he asked. She nodded and skipped into the kitchen, her fluffy pink slippers thudding solidly with each landing.
As Neel followed her into the kitchen, he caught sight of Rana watching television, slouched on a couch, wearing her stained purple bathrobe as though she hadn’t moved since the morning.
“Ey,” she called out by way of greeting, her eyes still transfixed on the screen. “Did you bring the fish?”
Neel scanned the items laid out on the kitchen table. “No,” he said with a sigh. “Just chicken — I thought fish was for you to buy next week.”
“I wrote it on your list,” she retorted, her eyes still unmoving. “Why do you never listen to me?” Neel remained silent. As Rana’s tone grew icy, the daughter continued to prance around in the kitchen, unperturbed. Not oblivious, merely accustomed.
Neel poured the paprika onto a plate with some salt and prepared to turn on the stove. Suddenly, Rana got up from the couch and ambled into the kitchen.
“I want to take her to India next month,” she said, gesturing at her daughter. “We haven’t been back in over two years, it’s time.”
“We barely have enough saved up to get her a proper jacket,” Neel said, continuing to prepare his cooking.
“If she had been brought up in India, she wouldn’t need this ‘down jacket.’”
Ignoring this counterfactual, Neel smiled dejectedly. “Well, maybe you could bring back some cumin. God knows this house is missing some.” He regretted these words as soon as they left his mouth. His half-hearted jokes these days simply hung suspended in the air, dissipating and leaving quiet trails of resentment lingering in their wake.
“So, you’re saying we can go? You need cumin. I need my family.”
“No,” Neel said firmly. “We have to wait some more.”
His words seemed to flip a switch in Rana’s eyes. Previously drooping and groggy, her pupils alighted with sparkling embers.
“I always wait for you!” she shouted. “I don’t want to live in this godforsaken place. We don’t even have a proper store nearby. We can’t even eat proper food. You dragged me here!”
His ensuing silence only served as an additional provocation. Rana raised both hands to her head, grabbing her hair in tufts. “I HATE you!” she screamed, yanking out hair in chunks while wincing at the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Neel, all too familiar with this show, silently continued to chop tomatoes. Right down the seam in the middle, a clean slice, taking great care not to let them burst and lose juice to the cutting board. He clicked his tongue in exasperation as one lone seed came away from the whole, breaking the fruit’s pristine symmetry.
Neel’s lack of attention infuriated Rana further, while the daughter continued to sit serenely near her father’s calf. Glancing around the kitchen, Rana seized a small white ceramic plate from the Corelle set her parents had given them for their wedding. Scrunching up her face, she hurled it at the wall in a sudden burst of energy.
“I wish I were dead!” she yelled, her voice breaking and her breathing quickening, growing shallow. Neel kept his gaze on the tomato before him. He mustn’t lose any more seeds. Dice the half down the center, turn and dice again. Rana turned, running out of the kitchen, while her daughter stared confusedly at the shattered ceramic.
Indian cooking is a methodical process. In some cuisines, people throw everything in a pot and let their concoctions simmer. Not so here. One must first sauté the onions, and then gently lower the heat. Only then can the spices be added, coating the onions in a thin layer. After hitting a certain level of fragrance, the remaining ingredients are added, one by one. These steps are like a formula, nothing short of mathematical. Neel approached the stove, following these motions, seeking solace in his own muscle memory as he did during those peaceful, solo drives. The daughter skipped happily out of the kitchen.
Once everything had been added to the pot, Neel bent down to pick up the shards of ceramic Rana had left on the floor, sweeping them as far away from his daughter as he could. He felt a distinct lack of loss looking down at the broken pieces, remembering the day her father had presented them with the Corelle set and a pack of gleaming silverware. He really did like his father-in-law. He recalled smiling and laughing, putting his arm around Rana and envisioning the setup of the Americanhome they would call their very own. Although he could replay these memories in sharp focus, he now felt a strange emptiness in his chest. The knifelike pangs of the past seemed to have left him, just as his fury abandoned him when those two men tapped on his rear window. Part of him wished he could muster up that rage. Rage at the men, rage at himself for allowing the societal taboo of divorce to keep him trapped in his crumbling marriage. But instead, numbness enveloped his heart like a thin sheen of ice, simultaneously sheltering him from the polarity of emotion and inhibiting him from release.
Suddenly, he heard a loud thud outside the kitchen. Alarmed, he stepped out, running to the bathroom. The long glass mirror, stained with the debris of the past few weeks, interrupted his reflection as he stood at the door. Three glass dolls that were also once wedding gifts guarded the basin, once pearly white, now discolored in splotchy, uneven patches, grime lining their foreheads in faded streaks. Inside the basin lay twenty sleeping pills, clumped together, just fallen from reach. The open pill bottle lay sideways by the faucet. On top of the toilet lay a razor stained with fresh blood, the scarlet liquid slowly trickling onto the porcelain. Rana lay weeping on the floor, a lone pill in her hand and three long gashes tearing open her shin. The daughter watched.
“I couldn’t do it,” Rana sobbed. “I have to live, for her.”
Rana knew, but could only admit in her own mind, that she did not want to die. She did not believe in a life after death, only in blankness. But what she wanted was the opposite of blankness. She wanted a release from life as an immigrant. No fresh start can numb the pain of a tree that becomes uprooted from the place it has always stood. Suddenly, it is commanded, not merely to adapt, but assimilate. To shed old leaves and camouflage amid a new, foreign forest. To survive in sub-zero temperatures after being kissed by humid tropics its whole life. To withstand a snowstorm with nothing but a six-dollar Big Lots jacket.
So Rana did not want death. She wanted her hometown, the vibrant island of joy that lay on the opposite end of the planet. She wanted the fragrant monsoon rains that pelted the soil with scent, the same soil from which her own roots sprouted for years before being cut. She wanted a place where English was subservient to her mother tongue, the latter emblazoned everywhere from street signs to soap bottles. She wanted the spices, those long-lost aromas that the “ethnic” food aisle could only dream of capturing. Her body ached to take a dip in the Ganga River. What some, to this day, call the “Third World,” was always her first and only. This place she had landed in was not home. Regardless of what animal inhabited the cover of her passport, it would never be her home. While her body had crossed the circumference of a planet, her heart had stayed back. She knew that her family was a casualty of her pain. Yet it consumed her in clutches so tight, she felt like a puppet of her own longing. Her actions were no longer her own, driven by an unquenchable thirst, the desire for return. So she lay helplessly on the bathroom floor, rocking silently to the rhythm of her sadness.
The daughter looked on, hips akimbo, her head slightly tilted to one side. She was ignorant of her future as a sacrificial hybrid tree, one that grows uncertainly, unsure of its own existence between two lives, two anthems, two tongues, two allegiances, and even two parents.
As the daughter observed the scene — the glaze of innocence veiling her sight — Neel watched her with a dull sense of regret. He approached the bathroom sink without looking down at Rana, who remained curled up at his feet. He reached in with those hands, worn beyond their years, and picked up the pills one by one. This was one routine he hoped he would never have to teach his daughter.
Taking the little girl by the hand, Neel guided her to his own room, handing her some toys and turning on the DVD player.
“Just wait for me to finish making dinner, okay?”
She plopped down on the bed, already distracted.
Rana stayed on the floor, bearing the distance of an ocean in her empty chest. The daughter, playing with a Barbie doll in the other room while watching a Bengali cartoon, was already bearing the duality of a world she could not yet understand. And Neel, impassive, carried the weight of a thousand retorts buried deep within his heart. He and Rana had crossed a sea together but failed to cross the impasse that lay impenetrably between them. Neel stood at one end, unwavering, while Rana lay at the other end, drifting amid her own salty tears.
Neel finished cleaning the sink and set the pill bottle back inside the medicine cabinet. He returned to the kitchen, as though the entire incident had been just another task on his to-do list. As he sprinkled more paprika onto the food and resumed his work at the cutting board, his vision clouded. Onions had always made his eyes water.
When you grow up seeing blood stains on your shampoo bottles, your sense of normalcy shifts as mine did. You don’t cry when you trip and fall on the playground, because you had just seen blood the night before when your mother took a clothespin to her forearms. You watched the blood leak slowly down her clothes and onto the floor, where it left a dark brown shadow for you to see the next day too. You are unfazed when your classmates roughhouse and toss pencils across the room because a pressure cooker was hurled right past your head on your fourth birthday. You rip out pieces of your hair when you get stuck on a math problem because you are following the example of the biological role model that the world assigned to you. You hate this biologyfor making you what you are: a living reminder of your parent’s suffering, of the hurting of immigrants worldwide. You have escaped that pain simply because of the soil you were born on. And so the burden on your shoulders is inexplicable, as you carry the weight of a parent’s mental health, her suicide threats, the weight of her entire life, day in, day out. Your heart slowly starts to contort inward, its once fiery heat chilling over time like that cold Massachusetts night, for the only love you have ever known is wrapped in tears, sleeping pills, and razor blades.
Mental health is quite the subject these days, its troubles affect everyone; it knows no gender, orientation, race — it strikes upon one’s inner journey. But specifically, what have not been put in the same sentence are men, mental health and vulnerability. Too often it is seen that men are not allowed to show their emotions. But the aftermath shows that this repression of emotions bleeds into relationships, substance abuse, domestic violence, and more. It is seen time and time again in films, books, art — it’s all too familiar.
And it is beyond the point of “let’s talk about it.”
Time for action.
Mental health hits close to home for me. As a filmmaker, I will always share my journey with others. – Jacquile Singh Kambo
Men, mental health and vulnerability often aren’t talked about enough. “Embrace” is a short film that seeks to change that. It is a short animated film about Arty, a well-dressed man who has no face, gets ready for his date until he meets a younger version of himself. Arty and this younger version of himself delve into a surreal world where he learns to embrace himself. It’s him versus himself.
The façade self; the feeling of wanting to be somebody — are all things people are dealing with especially in adult life. From the dating world to the social media world — it feels like different masks are worn only to make us feel faceless, feel numb or a nobody. Too many masks could make people feel like a lost identity amidst everything that is going on in this crazy world. Out of touch, and out of life — with others and with themselves. The masks are metaphorical, the story is internally about men and mental health. Arty learns to ’embrace’ himself and to overcome his internal struggles.
Not often is it discussed that men should have a safe environment to be vulnerable, amongst others or even other men. Perhaps this is because men are wired to put on a façade when things go wrong, when things get difficult, or when true emotions are not expressed. If these are not dealt with, it can lead to other relationships, including romantic relationships. Further it becomes a cycle: suppression could lead to aggression, substance abuse or self-sabotaging behaviors and could create a toxic environment. Many of these arise from childhood trauma. Quite often childhood is repressed or ignored, and one may take their troubles along with them into adulthood. Perhaps revisiting the roots of the past can help one become successful in a better tomorrow. “Embrace” is an example of how important it is for men to embrace their past.
“Embrace” was meant to be a live-action film — until animation was considered. Seven years of re-writing, re-working, and digging down deep with the characters for the story to better fit the message at its core. Animation is an underrated avenue for a universal story that became the key pillar for “Embrace”. What many do not know about animation is that you can create a serious subject matter in a light-hearted way that is universally acceptable. Men and mental health are heavy subjects for some, but animation allows the exploration to become innovative, creative and fun. Animation allows the experimentation of entering surreal worlds.
For example, in “Embrace” Arty enters a surreal world where he has to go up against a younger version of himself — to unmask the root cause of his internal struggles and give himself the “big hug” he needs. This heart-throbbing metaphor is captured in animation that a live-action film couldn’t have captured. The freedom of animation helps tackle tough subject matters about self-love, and how we must embrace the soul, the child, the person within.
The Story Behind The Story
There are many inspirations behind “Embrace”. Film noir, the silent film era, surrealism and the works of Christopher Nolan and David Lynch — the film is able to articulate something far more special. This is more than just a mental health piece for educational purposes. This is a classical narrative from beginning to end; a story of important themes and beloved characters that needed to be shared with the world.
It is not often the words mental health and men and vulnerability are discussed under the same umbrella — especially with growing hypermasculinity, and the likes of social media where facades are put up and the vulnerable parts of ourselves aren’t as expressed. It is here where the film encourages men to look within themselves, and allows them to be vulnerable to themselves. Perhaps this is an important step to better themselves on the journey to have successes (whatever success means to them), and to enlighten and lift those around them. The first step should always begin with “you.”
It’s tough to find places where men have access in ways of improving their mental health without feeling like a patient or a victim in the institutionalized realm. It’s tough to find places where men can talk to other men about their struggles among peer groups, educational groups, and more.
The “Let’s Talk” phase and awareness is long overdue; it is indeed time for action. Perhaps creating seminars or group-related events and activities to help create vulnerable environments. Art or art therapy can be a great way of producing something stemming from the inner journey. Or maybe it is time to look at “sick days” as “mental health days” as well. Perhaps more can be done to simply just talk about it. It’s time to give ‘doing’ a chance to start in our close-knit communities.
Maybe if one learns to ’embrace’ themselves, only then, perhaps one can fully understand others and their pain — and have the vision of empathy for others. “Embrace” took seven years to write and a year of animation for a four-and-a-half-minute short film. The film is about self-love, embracing one’s self before one can see empathy for others. It is produced by Raman K Fenty and Jayesh Kodwani and his team, directed and written by Jacquile Singh Kambo, co- written by Sidartha Murjani and stars Jenna Berman. “Embrace” has received numerous international accolades including Best Audience choice at the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival of Halifax, Nova Scotia, as well as acceptances in hometown Vancouver, Canada; Goa, India and Chicago, United States.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please call your regional crisis hotline. These are a few non-crisis mental health resources for men’s mental health.
Ten to 28% of the world’s population of women experience painful sex. Keep in mind, that this is just what is reported. As embarrassing and as vulnerable as you may feel, you are absolutely not alone. The good news is that in addition to your traditional medical care to treat painful sex (also known as dyspareunia) such as medication, injections and surgery — a conservative approach is effective and long-lasting. Conservative care ranges from pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture which are beneficial in treating the root cause of painful sex, as well as symptoms, for long-term healing.
Some of the signs to look out for if you experience pain are:
Treatment options for painful sex such as pelvic floor physical therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture provide a long-lasting and profound effect on the pelvic floor and address your entire physical well-being.
The pelvic floor is a layer of muscles that range from the pubic bone to the tailbone. The purpose of these muscles is to assist in bowel and bladder control, support a baby during pregnancy and contribute to sexual sensations. Just like any other muscle in your body, these pelvic floor muscles can become tight or weak which can be a contributing factor to pain.
Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy
Pelvic floor therapy can assist by strengthening and relaxing the muscles which is necessary to relieve pain during sex.
Chiropractors can be extremely beneficial with assisting in helping relieve pain. Associated pain and discomfort can originate from the lower back and buttock muscles. Chiropractors are trained in taking a history and performing a neurological, orthopedic and soft tissue examination to identify treatment options. Deep tissue massage, skin rolling, Active Release Technique, muscle energy technique, ice, heat and electrical stimulation are just to name a few.
Acupuncture can activate the human dopamine system which helps regulate hormone levels and can assist in psychological factors. Acupuncture can improve mood, decrease pain and can be vastly beneficial in managing pain and mental health symptoms.
Ask for help
“Everyone is having pelvic pain and no one is talking about it”
Start with seeing your gynecologist who you trust for a history and examination of current symptoms to rule out any other medical conditions that could be a contributing factor to symptoms.
How to talk to your partner about this in a safe/healthy way
Being open with your partner about your symptoms and painful sex may seem like a difficult conversation. Intercourse should never be painful and learning when to stay ‘stop’ is important in communication. Talking about pain before, during and after sex is important also in your own health diagnosis to see if pain symptoms are improving or becoming worse. Having open communication does not only benefit your relationship but most importantly, your own health.
To experience these symptoms may seem taboo or unheard of but quite frankly, they are common in many women. Women deserve to be directed to proper healthcare.
Disclaimer: These are based on recommendations from a board-certified chiropractic physician and licensed acupuncturist. If symptoms become new or worse, consult with a primary care physician and or OBGYN to co-manage symptoms.