Gray’s Anomaly: A Source of Empowerment
Feb. 8, 2012 | “I’ll trim it so it’s not so bulky,” James Y. Suen, M.D., said as he folded, then snipped a tiny edge of gauze off before he placed it on his patient’s right jaw. He has cared for 23-year-old Jasmine Gray ever since she was 11 when she traveled from Memphis, Tenn. to see him after first being misdiagnosed.
Gray has undergone more than 30 surgeries for one of the rarest vascular lesions in the world: arteriovenous malformation or AVM. Most of them with Suen, professor and chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
According to Suen, AVMs most commonly manifest themselves very early in life or during puberty. They occur when arteries connect to veins and bypass capillaries. Tangles of veins then expand, invade tissues or organs and start coming to the surface of the skin.
AVMs can cause a range of health problems including facial disfigurement and paralysis, external and internal bleeding, blood clots and, in the most severe cases, death.
Gray’s cheek, lips, tongue and mandible are among the areas affected. She’s endured years of school children’s taunts.
“Why you look like that?”
Gray is resilient and credits her religious faith for helping her to remain positive. She questions standards of beauty that demand girls look a certain way. “When you have AVM,” Gray said, “a lot of times you don’t meet those standards.” Gray also reaches out to others around the world on a Facebook page where AVM survivors connect.
“Jasmine is unique because she’s not willing to be just a victim,” Suen said.
Gray is, in fact, turning a camera on herself to raise awareness about AVM. She’s already more than half-way toward her goal of $5,000 to produce and direct “More Than Skin Deep,” a feature-length documentary about Gray and others sharing their stories of coping with the day-to-day challenges of living with AVM. The documentary will also feature Suen and other specialists on a quest to cure AVM.
Theirs is a relationship fueled by mutual respect. While Suen sat on a swivel stool in room 348, Gray detailed her recent infection and peppered Suen with questions about her treatment upon her impending move to Los Angeles.
Satisfied with the doctor’s answers, the filmmaker in her multi-tasked this check-up. Gray finished a sentence, paused and looked to her point-and-shoot-wielding father:
“Did you get me and Dr. Suen?”
Eddie W. Gray Jr. is a project engineer for Federal Express but this day served as his daughter’s production assistant. He’s soft spoken and happy to let his daughter shine. “She’s all her mama. She’s the communications major.”
Jasmine Gray graduated summa cum laude with a degree in communications from Middle Tennessee State University. “I just got my master’s in television and film,” she added, “and that would have never happened had it not been for the doctors at UAMS who gave me an opportunity, a chance to live and go on to college and to go on to graduate school.”
Suen is proud of his patient. He’s using his connections to help open doors for Gray in the television industry in Los Angeles. And, he recognizes the impact she’s already making, even on him. “Hearing Jasmine talk, we need to have the emotional aspect addressed as well,” Suen said.
“Jasmine has been so selfless about her condition,” her father said. “I don’t necessarily look at her condition as a curse but as a blessing because she has been an inspiration to others. And we’ve tried to be encouraging to other parents. We can see her being so strong has allowed us to be strong [and] has allowed us to be a source of encouragement for other families.”
Jasmine, whose friends call her Jaz, says it’s all part of her life’s journey.
“I think I try to stay open to what comes my way but I think the main thing is using my life to empower others. That’s all you need is a plan!”
To share in Gray’s story, log onto Morethanskindeep.me for more information.