This week we share two stories from people who have go on wild goose chases to find their dads.
Part 1: In his last year of medical school in Colombia, Gabriel Duran Rehbein finds out his father has been kidnapped.
Gabriel Duran Rehbein, MD describes himself as a huge nerd and a pathological optimist. He is currently making full use of both those characteristics as a Research Fellow in the Viviane Tabar Lab at MSKCC, where his work focuses on the development of a novel real-time drug screening platform for primary brain tumors using patient-derived three-dimensional explant cultures. He obtained his MD from Universidad de los Andes in his native city of Bogotá, Colombia. When he is not in the lab, Gabriel enjoys reading, attending concerts and spending time with friends. He is always on the lookout for places to go salsa dancing.”
Part 2: After seeing her dad lose control of his mind, art student Minerva Contreras decides to study the brain, in hopes of understanding him.
Minerva Contreras is a senior at Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro, where she is majoring in Biotechnology Engineering with a focus in Biomedical Sciences. Her undergrad research has lead her to explore different areas within neurobiology such as the molecular biology of glioblastoma at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, and neurodegenerative diseases at UCSD Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. Before discovering her passion for science, Minerva completed an AA in Filmmaking; she believes this was an important contribution to her appreciation for diversity and humanities. Her future goals include pursuing a doctoral degree in Neurosciences, as well as creatively communicating science to the general public, especially future generations, in a relatable fashion. As of next fall, she will be a grad student in the Neurosciences PhD program at UCSD. In her spare time, she enjoys going on hikes with her dogs, strength training, and spending time with her family and friends.
Part 1: Gabriel Duran Rehbein
As I made my way to the hospital I was training at at 5:30 in the morning on the last Friday of August of 2015, the biggest problem in my life was that I was sleep deprived, very sleep deprived. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be. You see, I was in my last year of medical school and where I’m from, Colombia, our last year of medical school is also our intern year, which is the most demanding year of any medical training. I was very deep into the most demanding rotation in my intern year, which was surgery.
So I was getting to the hospital and I did what I did every day. I called my dad. He ran a bit of land my family owned six hours out of where we lived and his farmer’s dawn-until-dusk schedule and my medical intern’s dawn-until-God-knows-when schedule meant that the only time we could talk was very early in the morning.
They were usually short conversations, as he's your proverbial man of few words. “How did you sleep?” “How was your day?” “What a great day!” But it was kind of everything.
So I call him and it rings and goes to voicemail. That is kind of unusual but I don't think much of it. He's supposed to come home that night so I'll just give him shit for it when I see him. Also, I have arrived at the hospital and, unless I get moving, I’m going to start my day getting chewed out by my attending. I usually aspire to delay that until at least lunchtime.
It’s three hours later and I’m getting ready to go on rounds in the ER with the attending surgeon on call when I get a call. Probably my dad, right? Everyone else just texts these days. But it wasn’t. It was actually a call from my home number and on the other side of it is Marcelle who has worked with my family since I was six months old.
She tells me, “Please, try to stay calm,” in a voice that very clearly wasn’t, “but it seems like your dad is missing and we fear he might have been kidnapped.”
I would like to say that my heart sank but this sensation was more of the walls of the room swallowing me whole and I was flooded with questions. If you're familiar with Colombia, we have a troubled past as a country. This was actually not that infrequent in the 1990’s but this was 2015. Things were supposed to be better. Things were better. How could this possibly be happening right now?
I was flooded with these and other questions that Marcelle was in no capacity to answer because she didn’t know. So I hang up and I called my mother to whom my dad unironically refers to as the head of our household. She was actually here in New York City at the time helping one of my sisters move apartments.
So damn be the international fees, I call her up and, “Is there anything you need me to do? Do I have to call, go, do anything?” She tells me that not right now. She's talking to the right people and making the right calls.
We don’t know much. We know that his silver ram truck was found halfway between our house in the farm and the main road and that there were three sets of boot prints leading from the car to a river. That’s pretty much it. She will let me know if she needs me to do anything but, at the moment, just stay close to the phone.
It was probably shock taking over but I thought that the best thing I could do was pretend and carry on with my day as if nothing was happening because I felt that if I could hold on to a bit of normality that would allow me to keep it together. This didn’t take me very far, though, because then I get a call from my other sister.
I have three older sisters. Yes, I know. God bless me. And she is in town, as I am, and she doesn’t want to be alone. That’s when it hit me that this just wasn’t happening to me or my dad or my mom. This was happening to all of my family at the same time. And if the best I could do was keep my sister company that was exactly what I had to do.
So I pick her up. We go home and we try not to freak out every time the phone rings. It wasn’t really easy.
The next day my mom and other sister make their way back to Bogotá and my sisters stay at home while we travel to the biggest city near where my father was taken. There, we were taken to the headquarters of the police’s Anti-Extortion Task Force and we meet Lieutenant Alexander Barreto who we are told is in charge of our case and who we are profusely told is the best in his line of work and that we are in very good hands, which I couldn’t help but think was funny because it’s something I as a medical student and fake doctor told patients all the time. I can tell you right now, being on the receiving end, not great.
He tells us that his plan and his team is committed to getting our father back to us safe and sound without us paying anyone anything. That all seems well and good and he turns to my mother and asks her if she's been contacted yet. She says she has not, probably because my father and, by extension, the kidnappers think she's still out of the country.
“Good,” he says. “Please turn off your cell phones. If they can’t contact you, they can’t pressure you and that will afford us time. And time is the most valuable thing you can give us right now. If they contact anyone else, please direct them to contact Gabriel. We’re here. We’ll coach him with what to say.”
Almost as if on cue, my phone starts ringing and it’s my sister who came back with my mother from New York and she is, to put it mildly, upset. It’s hard to make out what she's saying but I manage to pull out the words my father called the house. It’s the only number he knows by heart. “I didn’t know what to do. I told him to call you.”
We haven't even hung up and I already have an incoming call from an unknown number. I show it to the lieutenant and he says, “Yeah, that’s them. Please put it on speaker.”
What follows is one of the most bizarre, jarring conversations I've had with my father in my entire life. As I told you before, he's a man of few words, but his tone is usually one that conveys calm and wisdom and fatherly things. This time, his tone is anxious and his sentences are a lot shorter than they usually are.
“Where is your mother? We need that money. I have worked something out.”
And on the other end of that they are handing me all kinds of slips of paper with things to say and things to ask. “She's trying to make it back home, dad, but she hasn’t been able to.” And, “How can we get that money if she isn’t here? Please try to have them have some patience,” and I feel like I am putting on the worst amateur theater performance ever with everything on the line.
Turns out it wasn’t as bad as I thought because, after a few rounds of this, the kidnappers via my father instructed us to keep trying to get a hold of my mother and tell us that they will call us back in three hours.
“Gabriel,” my father says to me as he's about to hang up, which was a bit jarring to begin with because he never calls me by my full name, “if that money isn’t here tomorrow they are going to kill me.”
Three hours come and go and we don’t get a call and I am mildly worried. People from the police force are quick to tell us that this is a common tactic kidnappers employ to generate the stress. And the stress, they very much degenerate. So they start to regale my mother and I with stories of past successes and family reunifications to calm us down but I tune out. I've started thinking about my dad and whether they're treating him well and whether I’m going to get to see him again and hug him again and whether I've said something I probably shouldn’t that had got him killed.
I’m spiraling in these thoughts when a vibration in my pocket jabs me out of it. It’s another call from them and here we go again. They apply pressure. I do my best to evade. This goes on for two days, my mother and I shuttling back and forth between the police headquarters and our hotel room.
Monday is the third day and on Monday they tell us it’s time to give them something so my mother can turn her phone back on. It’s time for her to shoulder the calls. I can’t help but have very, very mixed feelings about this because I’m so relieved that I don’t have to listen to my kidnapped father again. But now my mother has to, and I feel terrible giving this burden to her. But she is the rock of our household and her voice in this situation calms me down. I’m sure it will calm him down and I try to cling to this.
Things keep moving forward and we manage to arrange for a partial drop, a down payment of sorts, if you will, in which we are going to give them some of the money they are asking for in exchange for my dad being released and we promised to make ensuing payments. That’s all well and good except that the moment of the drop on Tuesday night comes and the person the kidnappers instructed to help them pick up the money doesn’t show up. Now it’s midnight on Tuesday and we have no idea what’s going on.
We are in our hotel room after my mother has gone to be stood up by this person and I’m losing my mind. The police agents are painfully calm and this reminds me of every time I've told patients that everything has been done as it should and that they should just be calm. I can’t help but think about how I hate being on the receiving end again. I just start seething with rage because it’s not their fault but why are they so calm when I’m not.
About 1:00 a.m., one of the police agents turns to us and tells us that we need to go down to the headquarters again because we might need to make a decision. I should probably mention that when we met Lieutenant Barreto the first time, he told us that if they ever saw an opportunity where they could have an operation and extract my father with 100% chance of success, they would take it. No questions asked. If they saw it not so high in their success rate, they might consult us into the decision they're making, and that’s what I have in my head as we’re going to the headquarters.
We get there and this old, unassuming brick house is just teeming with activity. There are more lights than I have seen and more people that I have seen around it in the last five days of my life which feel like five years. I look at all this and I think, “Decision my ass. Something has happened.”
They lead us into this room which is just full of all kinds of divisions of agents I have never seen, so many shades of green. Right there in the middle of them, sporting the same Levis 503 jeans that he does every time he goes to the farm and wearing a very ugly five-day beard, is my father. I have no idea what is going on but I don't really care. I just run up and hug him.
It turns out that while all this madness with the drop and everything was going on about a hundred miles away, a police reconnaissance vehicle had unexpectedly come closer to where they were holding him than they thought. When the kidnappers saw the headlights from afar, they, I believe the technical term is, freaked out and ran leaving him there with the promise of subsequent payments.
So they had picked him up and taken him to where we were and it was police protocol or, in my vision, untolerable cruelty to not mention that had happened until we were in the same room.
The next day we make our way back home, as my father should have on his own five days earlier, and we try to get a little bit of normality back.
I blink and it’s a year later and it’s once again the end of August, 2016 this time. I’m no longer an intern. I've graduated, a full-fledged doctor under the eyes of Colombian law and I am now packing my bags. I’m trying to fit as much of my life as I can into a single suitcase. Something like the kind of thing that happened to us with my father is the type of thing that makes you pause in life and really think hard about what you're doing and what you want and how life can turn on ten words.
I thought that it was the moment for me to really assess what I wanted to do and where I want to move forward in life as a doctor and human being. The opportunity to came up to come and do research in brain cancer here at Memorial Sloan Kettering, which was something I had always been fascinated with, so I took it. I was flying out the next day and starting a new life in New York.
I know you're probably wondering, but about six months prior to that, they had eventually caught up with the guys, caught them, tried them and they were serving, and still are, their sentence in jail.
So I finish packing my bags and I sit down at my parents’ bedside with a bottle of champagne that they did not know we owned and three glasses. We toast to the fact that a year ago we were faced with the most literal manifestation of evil the world has thrown at us and that we beat it. That in a very short period of time, with very real stakes, relying on each other and with a bit of luck we had been able to develop hostage negotiation and other skills we never thought we would need to overcome the biggest problem the world had ever thrown us.
That’s something I've kept with me in the two years I have been a postdoc here in MSK especially transitioning from a life in Spanish to a life in English and to a clinical life to research life. Every time a three-week experiment fails or every time I have to pick up a new set of skills I remember the time that I had to really quickly and with real stakes pick up a set of skills and I feel marginally less frustrated.
I also remember the important things, like calling my dad every morning, which I still do, and they’re still pretty short conversations. “How was your ride to work?” “How was your sleep?” Everything is fine.
And he asks me how things are going in the lab. I usually tell him that science is hard, like really, really hard. He always laughs and replies the same thing. “Of course it is. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be the guy for the job.”
Part 2: Minerva Contreras
Growing up, I always had a feeling something was odd with my dad. Some days, my mom would pick me up from school and we would drive to this coffee shop where we could always find him. My dad spent every day there, all day just reading.
When I was a kid, I even thought that was his job because he spent the whole day there. Sometimes he would get home really late and I would stay up past my bedtime to be able to hang out with him for a couple of minutes.
My parents got divorced when I was 11 and, after that, I would hang out with my dad once a week then once a month and then less and less often.
I was 20 years old when I got a call from my dad saying he needed to see me. He sounded really agitated on the phone and I had not heard from him in over a year because he was talented in suddenly disappearing on me. Even though I knew I was going to miss class, I knew I had to go see him.
So I drove 150 miles south from my art school in Los Angeles and across the border to Tijuana to go see him. When I got there, I rang the doorbell and he came rushing out. This was the house that I grew up in but, like I said, my dad loved coffee shops so every time we would meet we would meet at a coffee shop. I had not been there in years.
He came rushing out. He seemed out of himself. And I asked him, “What do you want to do?” He didn’t respond.
So I said, “Can I come in?”
He said, “Do you really want to?”
And I said, “Sure,” trying to ease the tension.
We went in the house and he gave me a four-hour tour of the house. This was not a mansion. This was a small house. But he, smoking cigarette after cigarette, he meticulously pointed out every stain on the floor, every stain on the walls. The house was such a mess one could have easily assumed a hurricane hit it.
We carefully walked around every little piece of paper on the floor, every piece of trash so as not to alter anything, and he talked about the meaning behind these things. He said, “I’m not crazy, Mini. You have to believe me.”
He kept saying he had deciphered the subtext to every single one of these things. ‘They’ were out to get him and everything in his house had been carefully placed there as a sign by them.
I was clueless. I did not know what to do with any of this, but I did not question him because I had a feeling that he really needed someone to listen to this about him. He needed someone to share this with.
I felt so confused and then I left thinking my father, the person who’s supposed to be my role model, has lost his mind. I got in my car and I drove about two blocks away before I had to park and I burst out into tears. I felt so powerless, so confused and so worried.
I gather myself and drove home with only one thing on my mind. I had to help him out of this weird black hole.
So what is the mind? How can anyone lose it? How does the brain work? What is a neuron? What is the biology behind the brain malfunction? All these and so many more questions arose in my mind and I knew there had to be a scientific explanation to what was happening to my dad.
I was in art school at the time, as I mentioned, but all I did with my free time was read about the brain. I knew I had to go to the bottom of it so the brain books were not going to be enough. I needed a science career, obviously. So I moved to San Diego and I enrolled in a community college with the intent to transfer to university and pursue a scientific career.
I am no psychiatrist, especially I was not a psychiatrist back then or a neuroscientist, yet, but I eventually hypothetically diagnosed my dad with paranoid schizophrenia. One of the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia is having grandiose delusions. Add that to being an older Mexican man, or a macho, older Mexican men don’t get sick. They're almighty, invincible beings. They don’t need help in finding directions. They have no struggles. And losing your mind is something that can only happen to women, so talking to my dad about the way he was acting or feeling was completely out of the question.
Before I could even talk to him about this, I had to figure out a way to interact with him because, like I said, we would meet in coffee shops, at this time about once a month. Sometimes we would just be having a conversation and I would do something as simple as this, like fixing my hair, and he would simply get up and leave.
Sometimes he would say, “What did you just tell them?” Then he would leave. So I had to learn to provide a safe space for him.
I could not look away. I had to have my eyes on him 100% of the time. I could not cross my arms. I could not cross my legs. I could not scratch my nose if I had an itch. I could not fix my hair. And it was really hard.
But one beautiful delusion of my dad was that he claimed he could communicate with birds and they were on his side, which was a good thing. Sometimes when he was driving down the road, birds would warn him about accidents on the road or, at the coffee shop, they would warn him about suspicious people.
I would tell him, “Well, I hope the birds like me,” and he would laugh.
I try to provide an environment for him where he did not feel misunderstood or judged but it became really hard, like I said. Sometimes we would have good dates but most of our dates were really difficult and ended up on a bad note. He really needed me to be a daughter and to listen to him and to believe everything he said, and I pretended to do so but, at the same time, I had to quiet my problem-solving, scientific self and I had to keep learning about paranoid schizophrenia or mental illnesses.
I wasn’t really able to do anything about it because I wanted him to go see a professional. As far as I understood then there are symptoms that can be treated to help someone with paranoid schizophrenia to have a better life but it became impossible. Every time I told him, “You should go see a doctor,” he would simply get up and leave. Statistics say about 40% of people with schizophrenia in Mexico could not get diagnosed because they deny being ill.
One time we were at a coffee shop and I was so sick of his harmful words or just simply getting up and leaving that I stood up and I told him, “I’m your daughter. Why would I be conspiring against you? Why would I do anything to hurt you?”
He kind of paused and stared at me and he had this look on his face like he wanted to believe me but I don't think he could.
One day in September of last year, I got a call from my brother. He said my dad was not feeling good. He had been coughing blood for two weeks and he was taking him to see a doctor. Like I said, my dad did not trust anyone so the simple fact that he was going to see a doctor was a big shock for me. At the time, I was in school in Queretaro but that’s a different story, and I had to fly to Tijuana to go see him.
I actually don’t remember buying the ticket. I bought a roundtrip which makes no sense because I did not know what was going to happen. When I got there, my girlfriend picked me up from the airport and we drove straight to the hospital. It was around 11:00 p.m., so past visiting hours.
I called my brother and I said, “Is it convenient if I go now or should wait until the morning?” I would always get really nervous when I was going to see my dad and it had been over a year.
My brother simply said, “Come. He's excited to see you.”
I said. “Okay.”
So I got there and seeing my dad in a hospital gown in a hospital bed with probably below 8% body fat was a huge shock. He seemed really tired. His skin seemed ashy and I had a feeling just by looking at him it was cancer, so I know I had to mentally prepare for it. I had some scientific knowledge on cancer. I thought this can help.
And I realized scientific knowledge can help you better understand a disease, how it will progress and what to expect, but it does very little to help you prepare for the emotional impact.
I'd like to think that I was one of the few people, or maybe the only one, who got closest to understanding what was wrong with my dad. I was one of the only few that understood that he could be the nicest, funniest, most charming person in the room for a minute and the next second he would flip and become a really rude man. And I like to think he knew.
On our very last conversation he told me, “You should try to not be so stubborn. Things aren’t always the way you think they are.” To this day I wonder what he meant by that.
I told him that I had found my passion for science because of him and I thanked him for that, that I have a huge need to understand everything because I have a deep need to understand him.
My dad passed away before I had a clear perspective of what he went through. It took me a while but I came to peace with being able to understand that I was never going to be able to understand completely. As a scientist, this is completely out of my league. I need the explanations. I wanted my dad’s mental illness to fit into a box with specific locks and I wanted to be able to find the keys to these locks to find what was inside, to be able to discover what he was going through. And I wanted him to help me find the keys. But for my dad, there was nothing wrong with him. His reality was completely different than mine. For my dad, there was no box.