A story about resilience, I guess.
Felt like sharing some stuff tonight. A story about resilience, I guess.
I immigrated to the US from Italy in 2009. Feeling strong about my educational and professional background, I took a leap of faith. I moved to Chicago without really having a job opportunity or knowing anyone in particular. My wife was able to transfer her Ph.D. program from Milan to Chicago. Her position gave her a J1 Visa. As her spouse, I received a temporary work permit to work in the US for any employer. Those who are familiar with the US immigration system know how rare that is. So we decided to leave family and friends and took it one step at a time. "Let's see what happens," we told each other. Well, life happened. While my wife was continuing her Ph.D. in Machine Learning, my days were full of introduction meetings with other Chicago communications professionals. But not much was going on professionally. It was painful, but it was painful for many, not just for me. It took several years for the US economy to recover from the 2008 crisis. For 2 years, I struggled just like millions of other Americans. In 2011 my wife was offered a job—a good career opportunity. Machine Learning is THE thing you can't live without today, and she rocks at it, a dedicated AI superstar. We were at a point where savings were almost over, so the choice was to pick the job and stay in the US or go back to Italy. Although I had to give up on my temporary work permit, we chose to stay. My wife switched to an H1B VISA; therefore, I switched to an H4 VISA. I had the right to live in the States, but I did not have the right to work.
I gave up my work permit as once again, we were taking things one step at a time. I was thinking I could take an 18 months break and just focus on our family. We were blessed with the birth of our daughter, Mimi. It was a challenge to being a stay-at-home dad. My daughter literally grew on my laps, while her dad was juggling between baby formulas and diapers. In 2014 there was no sign of any green card arriving. However, my wife's work was highly appreciated and was working for an international company. The 18 months quickly became 2 1/2 years. In September 2014, I began to suffer excruciating back pains. When they hit me, I couldn't walk for two or three days. We thought it was a lack of exercise, and I should really try to get back in shape. In January 2015, that pain began to expand to my legs. So I finally decided to visit my doctor.
"First thing, let's do an MRI," my doctor said. MRI results were confusing. "Let's do a bone marrow biopsy." In February 2015, I was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma (cancer) in the bone marrow. "It's slow-growing cancer," the oncologist told me. "There's no need to worry. Let's just wait and watch". I was told the pain had nothing to do with it. For me, it didn't make a lot of sense as the main reason I was doing those tests was to understand the origin of that pain. After one month of "wait and watch," the problem was quickly growing, and I had my back, my two legs, and my left arm that were constantly in pain. I wasn't even able to walk anymore. We went for a second opinion, and this time a PET scan. The second oncologist said there was no time to wait. "Let's do chemo," he said. As terrifying as it could sound, I was ready to do chemo. But I just wanted to know what I was dealing with.
Certainly not a follicular lymphoma; the first diagnosis was clearly wrong or incomplete. So, we went to a third oncologist—a very well known oncologist. To make an appointment, I had to bring all my exams results I did in those previous 40 days. His office told us they were scheduling visits based on medical priorities. People were flying in from the entire country to be treated by him. It could take weeks before seeing the doctor. "No problem, I get it," I replied. After two hours, they called my mobile. "He's available to visit you next Thursday." Good news and bad news at the same time, I guess.
We made a second bone marrow biopsy. No, it was not only a slow-growing follicular lymphoma. There was also a highly aggressive Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma (DLBCL) that already 'chewed' away 1-inch of my left hip and was growing in 8 other parts of my body. No time to waste, chemo was necessary. 6-months of treatment, neutropenia complications (no immune system), and two ER hospitalizations, but the treatment was successful. The DLBCL was "gone."
While I was in treatment and recovery, my wife's company was acquired by a bigger company. The green card process became much speedier and straightforward. So they began the process automatically. In April 2016, the chemo side effects were almost over, and I received another "temporary" work permit. Now what? My creative career was practically over after so many years passed, and I already went through all the "temporary permit" thing. Let me tell you a secret. The word "Temporary" is not well seen in the US. Well… I went back thinking about the origins of my professional career I was having in Europe. I'm a filmmaker. I love filmmaking. And I'm a good one. So why not starting from there again? I wrote a short film script and gathered a few funds from family and friends; I produced my first US-based production in July 2016. Called Thank You Rebbe, it was well-received in the film festival circuit. I met a group of great creatives in Chicago, and it also gave me back a bit of my confidence… "hey, I still know how to do this stuff!".
Didn't really have much time to celebrate that in July 2016, I had to interrupt the "maintenance" Rituxan infusions as I was neutropenic again. The chemo side effect just showed up after almost ten months the chemo was over. I spent all August with an increasingly bad cough and fevers. In late August, I was hospitalized, again, with a heart-failure diagnosis. The heart was at 35%, water all over my lungs, and just praying the immune system would reboot itself alone and get rid of that virus. After IC and a 5-day hospitalization, I walked out of the hospital hand by hand with my 4-year-old daughter. She was growing and starting to get a feeling of what was going on. There's no way, no way, I told myself, I'm leaving my baby alone.
In March 2017, I finally recovered also from heart failure. Yes, heart issues take a long time to heal, unfortunately. But guess what? My wife received a job offer from one of the best startups in Seattle. She also needed a change after what we went through. "But only once we have this green card in our hands. No more temporary stuff," we agreed. Their offer expired on a Monday. On that same Monday morning, the mailman delivered a heavy, very heavy envelope. The green card was inside. We became permanent residents, no more restrictions of any kind. Packed the car with daughter and dog, my wife and I drove all the way to Seattle for a new beginning. I rolled up my sleeves and began working pro-bono. After a while some work was finally coming in, and I was doing well as a freelance. Then, just out of nowhere, I applied to a position I thought could make sense for me. It was located in Chicago. I was hired. Packed the car with dog, daughter, an exhausted wife after a one intense year in a west-coast startup, we drove back to Chicago. She gave up her position, taking herself a leap of faith this time. That's how we do it—one step at a time.
It was an honor and a privilege for the past two years to work as Video Director in one of the most prestigious nonprofits in Chicago, the Jewish United Fund. Storytelling about real-life stories, working as a filmmaker, doing something that had a meaning beyond business. I gave it all. I did not expect to receive so much recognition. In particular, this last one that just came in this weekend in October 2020: a Chicago/Midwest EMMY nomination for a video I conceived and produced about the rise of antisemitism and how JUF prevents and reacts to it:
My daughter is seven years old now, going for eight. She has no memories of the challenges that happened before. She just sees her dad as a successful guy "working with videos" and her successful mom "always in a meeting." "Back to back" is our current motto. The EMMY winners will be announced in November but honestly… After what my family and I went through in these past eleven years, I feel we've already won.
I would like to thank all those that supported me, in particular, some special people: Rabbi Meir Chai Benhiyoun who's teachings and friendship were a life-changing event for us, doctor Oren-Amit Gali who's intuition saved my life, doctor Leo Gordon who treated the DLBCL and still has to deal with me once in a while, my neighbor-bro Jonathan Harris and Cara Julius Harris who brought at our house almost every Friday bags of food for Shabbat during my chemo, the Highland Park ambulance and ER staff that I visited so many times (!!), Diane Aboulafia who encouraged me to get back on my feet, Anna Frankfort Brown who gave me the first chance to show my talent, Joy Schwartz who hired me from 2,000 miles away, Susan Marshall Bleser for the great teamwork we do on our videos, and, my daughter Miriam Chaya (Mimi) and my wife Rossella Blatt Vital who always remind me that taking life one step at a time is the best way to live and enjoy every moment together.