Life and Death: Stories of loss and resilience

This week, we're presenting two stories about loss and resilience in science.

Please note: Our first story this week contains graphic depictions of violence.

Part 1: Anthropologist Andrew Oberle barely survives an attack by the chimpanzees he was studying.

Jump to Andrew’s story >>

While conducting his Anthropology Master's research in South Africa in June 2012, Andrew Oberle was mauled by two adult male chimpanzees and nearly lost his life.  His remarkable recovery has led him to help other traumatically injured patients, serving as the Director of Development for the Oberle Institute, a holistic trauma program being developed at Saint Louis University that aims to give other trauma patients the resources necessary to have an equally successful recovery.  Andrew shares his story of survival hoping to inspire others as they experience tough times and create a national dialogue about the effects of resilience and community on a thriving recovery.

Part 2: After cosmologist Renee Hlozek's father dies, science becomes a solace.

Jump to Renee’s story >>

Renee Hlozek is an assistant professor at the Dunlap Institute within the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UofT. She was born in Pretoria, South Africa, where she also did her undergrad degree. She did her masters at the University of Cape Town before moving to the UK in 2008 as a South African Rhodes Scholar. After four years as the Lyman Spitzer Fellow at Princeton University, she moved to Toronto in 2016. Her work uses data from telescopes around the world to test the predictions of novel cosmological theories about our universe, how it started, what it contains and how it will end. She was elected as a 2013 TED Fellow and a Senior Fellow for the years 2014-2015.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Andrew Oberle

So raise your hand if you survived the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.  A 100% effective every time.  Science. 

Ever since I was eight years old I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  I wanted to work with my most favorite animal in the world, chimpanzees.  In second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Rosso, she taught us about Dr. Jane Goodall and how she was living in Africa with chimpanzees and teaching the world how amazing these animals were. 

I loved how humanlike they looked, the way they moved.  I loved the noises that they made, the way they played with each other and moved through the trees with little effort.  I love how smart they were when they would make their own tools and fish for termites.  I went home that afternoon and I told my mom, “That’s what I wanna do when I grow up.” 

So growing up, I spent as much time in zoos as I possibly could and I eventually wound up as a graduate student in anthropology.  Then in 2012, in June, I traveled to South Africa to a chimp sanctuary to fulfill my lifelong dream of conducting my very own original master’s thesis research with my favorite animals. 

So one afternoon I was out there giving a tour, stopped at an all-adult enclosure to tell the guests about the resident chimps in that group, and something enraged the two males in that group.  They decided to escape their enclosure and teach me a deadly lesson. 

Now, I don't know why they did it.  Maybe they saw me as a threat invading their territory, trying to steal their girlfriends, maybe they just wanted to show all the humans that were with us who were the real boss of that reserve was.  Who knows?  Chimps are chimps.  Full-grown adult male chimps are especially dangerous, especially smart, and could be very, very deadly aggressive. 

Now, what made it even worse for me was that I knew these chimps.  I cared about them and that’s why I was actually there at that sanctuary, because I wanted to do everything I could to make sure that these chimps had the best lives that they possibly could.  

So as they were holding me down, biting at me, tearing at my flesh, all I could do was scream and yell, “Nikki, Amadeus, stop it!  Please, don’t,” but none of that worked.  I didn’t think they’d ever stop.  It felt like an eternity.  If I close my eyes I can still actually feel Nikki’s hot breath on my face right before he bit off my nose, and I can see Amadeus’s big white eyes and his big white teeth as he bit finger one by one, almost in like a this-little-piggy-went-to-the-market fashion. 

When my pleas didn’t work, I tried fighting back, but I didn’t have any luck.  They nearly killed me. 

When the doctors finally got a hold of my mom, they told her to get to South Africa as soon as she possibly could, but not to have her hopes up.  Can you imagine how tough that 20-hour flight must have been for her? 

So I was rescued from the scene, I was rushed to a small emergency med clinic, and I nearly bled out.  The doctors had to use 25 units of blood just to keep me going while they addressed all my wounds.  I lost a lot of my scalp, both of my ears, as you can see, most of my fingers.  I lost my nose.  Had a nasty gash on the side of my face.  I had a collapsed lung.  I went in and out of septic shock several times. 

Both of my wrists were torn up, my elbow, my backend, my legs.  I lost over half of my right foot, all the toes on my left foot.  The doctor, they did an emergency tracheotomy.  They put me on a ventilator and into an induced coma. 

I woke up about two and a half weeks later in that hospital in South Africa with my mom and my dad kind of looking over down at me smiling.  I had no idea where I was so I tried to ask, but I couldn’t get any words out.  When I tried to talk I felt something funny in my neck, so I tried to reach up to feel what it was, but I couldn’t lift my arms.  I heard other voices around me outside of my mom and dad so I wanted to see who it was, but I couldn’t even lift and turn my head to take a look. 

I remember my mom telling me, “You're in a hospital in Johannesburg.  Do you remember what happened to you?”  I wanted to say yes, but I couldn’t spit those words out.  All I could do was kind of nod.  When I nodded, I looked down and all I could really see was a mangled, bloody, bandaged body from the feet up.  That’s when I started getting really scared. 

Andrew Oberle tells his story at the Ready Room in St. Louis in October 2017. Photo by David Kovaluk.

Andrew Oberle tells his story at the Ready Room in St. Louis in October 2017. Photo by David Kovaluk.

I started getting really anxious and started realizing how bad things actually were for me.  Then I started feeling all the pain throughout every inch of my body and I started feeling helpless, more helpless than I've ever felt in my life. 

Then that question that a lot of us have, especially in those hard moments is, “Why me?”  Why me?  That was just going through my head over and over. 

Over the next few days I started getting visited by this nice, old South African man named Yapi.  Yapi was the hospital’s counselor.  Now, I don’t really remember the substance of our conversations.  I was just brought out of an induced coma and on a lot of every kind of drug you can imagine, but I do remember the feeling that I would have when Yapi would leave. 

He'd leave for the day and I'd start to think about things, what happened to me, where I was, what might happen to me.  But the one kind of reoccurring thought that really kept creeping in after those visits with Yapi was, “Wow!  I’m alive.  I should not be here today, but I’m here.  So maybe I do have a little control, maybe I’m not completely helpless.” 

Now, around that same time my mom, who’s actually sitting in the crowd tonight, she started reading me notes in cards that she had hung kind of near the end of my bed that people had sent.  They were cards from people back home that I've known and loved my entire life, there were cards from strangers from all over the world, and they all had kind of the same message.  “Andrew, I’m praying for you.  I’m thinking about you.  If anybody can get through this, you can do it.” 

That’s when something really sparked inside me and I stopped feeling sorry for myself even in the condition I was in at that point.  I knew I couldn’t let my family down, I couldn’t let my friends down, I couldn’t let all these amazing strangers who went out of their way to do something for me, I couldn’t let them down.  I couldn’t let myself down and, most importantly, I couldn’t let my beautiful dog, Angie, who was waiting for me back home.  She needed me. 

So I was in the hospital over there in South Africa for about another five weeks.  I experienced daily agonizing dressing changes that could last up to four hours.  While they were pumping me full of Fentanyl during those dressing changes, I had my mom cover my face with a towel, put on my YouTube playlist so I could find some escape from that pain and from having to look down at my destroyed, damaged body that was terrifyingly gross. 

There were a lot of things that were really going on at that point that were trying to keep me down but I remembered those notes and I remembered what Yapi said, how he made me feel.  I knew I had to keep fighting back, so that’s what I did.  I even took on the one therapy challenge that they put in front of me at that hospital. 

If I could sit on the edge of my bed for just two minutes and hold myself in position after they put me there, that could mean I could get on a wheelchair, get put on an airplane, and get to go home to see Angie. 

Now, trying to sit on the edge of your bed when your backend has been completely torn apart by razor-sharp chimpanzee teeth, let me tell you. 

So a lot of the questions I get are, “Aren’t chimps cute and cuddly?”  Now, the ones you see on TV, yes, they are.  But when adolescence kicks in, for the males especially, they become these four-foot-tall, 200-pound juggernauts with razor-sharp canines and the strength of five men.  So they did a number on me. 

But sitting on the edge of my bed with bandages and everything going on back there, it was tough, every session, but I fought through it because I wanted to go home. 

Then one day it happened.  I finally sat up and I held myself there for two minutes.  My reward, just a couple of days later, they put me on a stretcher, wheeled me out of that hospital into an ambulance and we were off to the airport, and I was on my way home to see Angie. 

When I arrived in St. Louis and got to Saint Louis University, I got to meet my new doctor and my new best friend, Dr. Bruce Kraemer.  He's chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at SLU and he utilized his passion for innovative wound care to heal my body in some really remarkable ways. 

So I said my wrist was destroyed, I couldn’t move it from this position, couldn’t move my thumb.  To fix that he cut a flap into my belly and sutured that flap to my arm for three weeks where I was stuck like that.  After we cut that flap away, let it heal up, he went in, rearranged some of the tendons to where, now, I can extend my wrist and I can also kind of give you guys a thumbs-up. 

Now, his colleague, Michael Bernstein, built me a new nose from the skin on my forehead and the cartilage in my ribs. 

And Dr. Kraemer also uses this really amazing product called MatriStem, what us patients like to call “Magic Fairy Dust.”  What MatriStem is just a powder.  It’s derived from pig’s bladder.  It looks a lot like parmesan cheese, but it’s an incredible thing.  What it really is, is you pack it in a wound and it acts as a scaffolding for your body to kind of build over and it tells your body exactly what kind of cell needs to go in that very specific location, so specific, in fact, that a good buddy and fellow patient of mine actually grew back his old thumbprint after chopping off the tip of his thumb. 

So I was growing back normal tissue on my head with hair follicles and sweat glands instead of having a thick-skulled, big, scarred scalp.  The gash that you can maybe see on the side of my face here, I think it’s actually still getting smaller, more filled out and less noticeable.  I wasn’t experiencing any phantom pains or nerve pains in my amputation sites because this MatriStem was actually helping my body grow new nerves instead of letting the old ones bunch up and cause all that pain. 

But the level of healing I experienced it wasn’t just reducing my pain and healing my wounds, it was allowing me to try new state-of-the-art prosthetic devices for my hands and my feet.  And that confidence that I got from that healing was allowing me to put my face back out there in the world with confidence I never thought I'd have again. 

So with that confidence and my new prosthetics, I went to the gym every day to get stronger and faster to where, now, I’m running 5Ks with Angie, I’m doing unassisted pull-ups. 

But that motivation it also got me wanting to do a new master’s thesis and finish what I had started.  Now, I couldn’t get back out into the field and study chimps like I wanted to.  I couldn’t really even get to the zoo to get off my feet, so I did something I could do from the backroom of my mom’s house on my computer.  So I used satellite images, I used published primate field data, and I used geographic information systems to show how detrimental a large, multinational palm oil company was to chimpanzee populations and other private populations in a small national park in Southwest Cameroon that I visited a few years back. 

After a few months, I finished my thesis, it was approved by my committee, and I actually got to go back down to San Antonio where I was enrolled in school and walk that commencement stage on my new prosthetics, on Mother’s Day, with her watching me walk that stage like she's here watching me tonight.  Thank you. 

But I got my degree and that was it.  I didn’t know what was going to happen to me next.  I started getting anxious again and that “Why me” question came back into my head.  I didn’t know how to answer it. 

A few weeks later, I actually did my first post-accident interview with Channel 5 and the lovely Kay Quinn really just to get out there and share my story and kind of thank everybody that supported me and let them know how I’m doing, but then I got a really interesting call from Dr. Kraemer.  He said there was this really tall, really cool guy at Saint Louis U that wanted to meet me.  His name was Mike Higgins. 

So I met Mike and he shared a question with me he had when he was watching that interview.  “If Saint Louis University can do this for you, Andrew, why can’t they do it for everyone else?” 

So he asked me what my thoughts were on a trauma program, from my perspective, and what that might need.  We talked a lot about how trauma care isn’t just patching up a patient’s wounds and sending them out the door.  It’s about a holistic commitment to your patient and addressing not just the wound but also addressing the mental health and addressing the emotional support and really focusing on transformation during that moment. 

That transformation led to just a few weeks later when Mike called me back and invited me to join SLU’s Medical Center Development Team to utilize my story and my experience as a patient to develop a new trauma program that provides all those things that patients like me need to have a thriving recovery and get back out there in the world.  I’m really proud to announce that, after two years of planning, we just kicked off our pilot program a couple of months ago and we met our very first patient.  And even prouder to announce that this program that we’re inviting these patients to, our top supporters and donors wanted it to be called the Oberle Institute to tell that story of resilience and survival. 

So now I don’t work with chimps anymore.  That’s a question I normally get from everybody that I talk to, and I don’t.  But I miss it.  I don’t blame those animals for what happened to me.  I don't hate them.  I still actually go to the zoo and I sit with them and I watch them with a lot of that awe that I had ever since I was that little eight-year-old boy.  But it’s also a little different for me now, too.  I’m not just in awe by how cool these animals are and how they act and what they do but I’m in awe at the role that they’ve played in my life now to get me to where I’m at, actually building something that’s going to help hundreds, if not thousands of other people in St. Louis and around the world find that resilience and thrive after they go through something horrible. 

So why me?  I think I have that answer.  Thank you.

Part 2: Renee Hlozek

The day after my dad died was a beautiful spring day.  It was May in Oxford, the most perfect month of the most perfect season.  The sunshine was incredible and everyone was outside enjoying it, because it’s England.  You don’t get that many great days.  There were spring flowers everywhere, coming out of the buildings and under the trees and in the fields, and it was amazing. 

I felt a total disconnect with the day.  It was as if nature was telling me that I had no excuse not to enjoy myself, and yet I felt like the other reality that my dad wouldn’t experience this day from anywhere on the planet was understood by my most sensible of organs, like the kidneys and the liver.  But the other organs, my skin, my hair, my face – those are not organs – my lungs, my heart, my brain just didn’t get it.  It was as if my body was saying, “Just how did your logic die?” 

I remember getting the call from my brother.  He had texted me earlier that day to ask if he could have a time to Skype with me and my mom.  My mom was visiting me in Oxford at the time.  But my mom and I were going to a play in the garden of an Oxford college so we were feeling really frivolous.  We decided just not to prioritize a Skype that afternoon with my brother.  I can only imagine how hard it was for him to decide to call my cell phone rather than wait to Skype the next day. 

We had popped into a pub, one of the busiest pubs in Oxford called the Turf Tavern, to just have a quick pint before the play.  It was really loud and noisy so I decided to go into the courtyard to take the call.  I had to turn into the corner and so I was actually staring at people going to the toilet when I heard the news.  I heard this distant voice telling me that my father had died at 63. 

I instantly felt, of course, this wave of confusion and sadness.  I knew that I would have some really, really weird conversations in the months that followed and I had a sense of the tears that would come.  But mostly I felt like I turned the page in some Choose Your Own Adventure book and I didn’t know how to get back. 

The strange thing is that you never kind of get over that initially.  You're not sure what the last words were and if they were even descript enough to remember.  What if you couldn’t remember the last thing you said to someone because it was probably something really bland? 

Coupled to that my dad and I didn’t have a great relationship.  He was more sentimental than connected to my life so we sort of developed this symbiotic relationship of sharing memories and pleasantries.  He also wasn’t really great at looking after his body and so he'd had a lot of health scares when I was a kid and when I was a young adult.  So weirdly enough, I was prepared for this moment. 

It was like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and one of my feelings was anger.  I was angry that I wasn’t more sad, or the right amount of sad.  But what is the right amount of sad and for how long?  I felt like the sine wave of emotions, some sine curve that I just had to ride out until I understood my reality. 

Renee Hlozek shares her story at Tranzac in Toronto in September 2017. Photo by Ally Chadwick.

Renee Hlozek shares her story at Tranzac in Toronto in September 2017. Photo by Ally Chadwick.

I found a really strange ally during that time.  I found that science became my solace.  There was this strange solidity to the physical world and the participation of science.  Science isn’t the bottle of wine that you drown your sorrows in.  It isn’t that fight that you pick with your friends, but it’s constant.  So I found that that was communicated to me through my doing of science. 

And I hate to break it to you but the universe doesn’t care about you.  I found that really reassuring.  I was debugging my code, we were trying to forecast what future telescopes would tell us about dark energy and I found that the coding was somehow cold and distant.  It was a great friend who didn’t ask me to share, who gave me no empathy at all but gave me infinite comfort. 

As an aside, I probably leaned a little bit too heavy on that comfort.  As my mom was leaving one morning at 4:00 a.m. to catch an early flight back to South Africa, I was still coding at 4:00 a.m. and she thought she would try and beg me to add sleep as one of my ways of coping.  She had a point. 

It may seem really strange to think the fact that the universe doesn’t care about me gives me comfort, but actually, as a cosmologist, that’s something that really underpins my work.  I study the initial conditions of the universe, how it came to be the way it is, what it’s made of, and how it will change with time.  There's something really important about that grandeur, that bigness of the universe that I study.  But if I or you or Stephen Hawking understands the universe, she continues undeterred. 

I don't study cancer research or trying to change global warming.  Nothing in my research will change the fate of the universe, and that’s kind of how I like it.  There's something really solid and beautiful about it. 

I also realized that I was given another blessing by being a cosmologist because I’m actually really good at talking about death.  It just happens to be the death of the universe.  I study it all the time.  Because if we have the initial conditions of the universe and we understand the ratio of dark matter to dark energy, we can predict, with reasonable certainty, how the universe is going to end.  It’s not pretty, just in case you were wondering. 

So I know the end of this thriller even if none of us are going to be around to see it.  And it will take hundreds of billions of years to play out.  That’s awesome.  We write songs and plays and music about the universe, we look up and get really emotional, and yet we can calculate.  We can use telescopes and build new instruments to try and quantitatively understand the universe around us. 

I also realized that I could use some of those skills about talking about death with my own family and with my own life.  So that’s what I did. 

I sat my mom down.  It’s not a great conversation starter.  “Please, Mom.  I wanna talk to you about dying.”  But she was patient and she sat with me.  I told her what I want to happen after I die.  I’m just going to give you the whole spiel for the record. 

I want all of my organs donated for everything, if possible.  Also, any kind of scientific research you want to do on me is great.  I don't want a coffin anywhere near a memorial because those are only designed to make you sad.  I want an eco-burial, so put me in a Mushroom Death Suit and let me feed the planet.  I want a giant photo of my face, like huge.  And I also want more than one person to be wailing inconsolably, and hopefully banging something hard.  Just like, “Why?  So young!”  Actually, none of those are jokes. 

So strangely enough, talking to my family about things that I want, even though it was uncomfortable, it was just an amazing way of sharing.  I study the universe to understand it, but, partly, I got to understand my family and my loved ones by talking to them about my own death, which I thought was kind of beautiful. 

It also made me think about things that I want in the world and things I want to do in the world.  So I, as a good scientist, I made a list.  I want to learn.  I really love the way it challenges me and makes me think in different ways.  I want to travel both physically - I like to go to new places - but also mentally, through books and films and art.  I want to be taken to a new place in my brain. 

I want to love and I want to be able to be loved back.  I want my heart broken, because there's no more visceral way to be alive than to have your heart emotionally ripped out of your chest.  That happened recently. 

I also want to be able to enrich the lives of other people.  I want to enable people to be excited about the universe and go and study it, go and learn and read about our planet and the universe in general. 

Then I realized I had done almost all of those things.  Now, I’m not going to say that the rest of my life is boring, but I’m pretty sure it will contain some mixture of those things plus a really good cocktail and a couple of great cries. 

So I suddenly realized I don’t have to have regret, but it also made me think very carefully about possible limitations to my life.  It’s very important for me to be able to laugh and communicate with those around me.  And if I have the thought of a life that doesn’t contain those, I realize I want to optimize my life for those things and not just optimize my life for being alive. 

My family now knows that if I’m in an accident and I need to be resuscitated, if those things are not possible I don’t want that. 

My mom cried a bunch when she read all of this, but, to me, it’s very comforting to know that these people know this about me.  And why is that bad?  If we choose to look at physics with this very pragmatic objective understanding, we face the complicated calculations about the minutia of the universe, why does talking about how much pain you can tolerate or what you want your final days to be make the present any worse?  Surely it’s the opposite.  It gives us that rational insurance for a time when we are probably going to be our most afraid and alone. 

I feel really, really blessed as a cosmologist to be able to ask these incredible questions and I do it for mostly selfish reasons.  I just want to understand the universe.  But I also do it because I connect to the universe that way, just like talking about the end of my life helps me connect with those around me.

The universe is really huge but the enormity of the universe doesn’t make me feel smaller, it just makes me feel lucky that I get to learn about it and share it with you, to live, to laugh, and to love.  Maybe that’s the point.  Thank you.