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Becoming a Kamala: Indian American’s memoir chronicles a life of courage and reinvention

BY JYOTHSNA HEGDE

Atlanta, GA, December 22, 2021: “I cut my wrists severely in a moment of despair, feeling woozy after hours, and collapsed on the floor,” the opening line draws you in instantly because pain poignantly binds us. Pain permeates the surface to take us on a journey into deep waters, and does not distinguish between the brave and fearful, the rich and poor, or the loved and lonely.

“I was the mother of a 3 and half year old when I was admitted to the hospital in the middle of the night with stroke like symptoms in 2011,” Dr. Kamala Kalyani Maddali recounted her ordeal that changed her life forever, in her exclusive with NRI Pulse.  Amongst the many hurdles life has thrown at her, this one turned out to be the most harrowing yet.

Dr. Maddali has and continues to suffer from multiple challenges, including mental health issues as a rare disease neuro–degenerative patient (with signs similar to Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s) that would have driven others to give up. But she chose to tower over her struggles, much like her name, and the title of the memoir she authored, Becoming a Kamala, rising above the sludge of trials towards the sunshine of triumphs, unveiling her various ‘avatars’, as she puts it, in her pursuit towards becoming a better human, woman and a rare disease patient.

Recognized internationally as a champion of patient advocacy, precision medicine, cancer research, artificial intelligence, and digital technology and being named by PharmaVOICE as one of the “top-100 most inspiring people in life sciences,” only makes her a unique, empathic voice in precision medicine, as she strives to provide every patient with powerful tools from science and innovation in order to improve global community health. 

The Title: “Many of us can connect deeply and emotionally to the word, “Becoming” – what am I becoming. This word in any scenario is the wave effect of the inner voice,” Dr. Maddali observed. Initially trying to chronicle her rare disease symptoms, Dr. Maddali says life brought her to crossroads where she sporadically experienced episodes of unsteady walk, change in speech, extreme fatigue, severe neuropathic pain, stiffness and paralytic attacks even while being at the core of medical field with access to latest medical research. Having consulted various worldwide experts and not being able to find fitting solutions, Dr. Maddali reflected upon her journey and what was “becoming of her”.  And that, she says prompted her to put together pieces of her life, beginning from her childhood, her surrounding and the significance her name, that shaped her into the resilient woman she is today.

A Nellore and Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh, India native, Dr. Maddali is a clinically trained veterinarian who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the Sri Venkateswara Veterinary University in India and a doctorate in pharmacology from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The Purpose:  To Inspire – Born with high myopia (-4 D at age 3), Dr. Maddali’s childhood was hardly playful. While she dreamt of being a medical doctor, she turned out to be veterinarian. But, as the head of an AI firm today, Dr. Madddali lives in gratitude as a member of a family that she loves, as the mother of a bright eleven-year-old, and the embraced victim of a debilitating condition. In sharing her life story so rich in struggle and strength, enriched with the backdrop of Indian heritage, Hindu culture and spirituality that are very much part of her, Dr. Maddali hopes to inspire. “If you are someone aspiring for bigger things in life, or someone fighting a desperate situation, or even someone just bored of your ordinary life, I am sure my journey will inspire you.”

The Message: Pain has a purpose – Drawing deeply from her own travails be it being diagnosed myopic at 3, having to choose veterinary science instead of human medicine, almost being expelled from an American University, attempt to suicide, miscarriages and her current condition, Dr. Maddali guides the reader to her inspirational epiphany that it was the murky waters of pain, sorrow and hurt  that instilled seeds of bloom, like the Kamala to grow, elevate, beautify and bond herself though the darkness. To embrace what hurts us, gives us the power of self-control. When she could not play outside, she drew inspiration from her paralyzed grandfather who continued to brave through his disability, read and imagined more. When she was almost expelled for inadvertently not citing originals in her publications, she gathered a fellow Indian, also in the same trouble, to convince the provost that it was simply a matter of not knowing and they were both excused and he agreed that educating international students’ needed more attention. Her knowledge in veterinary sciences came in handy during her research in human medicine. Even her own debilitating condition only prompts her to advocate knowledge better and with “empathy”, in its truest sense. Just as a seed, to grow into a plant, needs to be cracked open and while it may appear to some that it is destruction, it is in fact growth.” It is just a matter of perception,” as Dr. Maddali puts it.

The Knowledge: Precision Medicine and Artificial Intelligence – Even as she grapples through her pain personally, professionally, Dr. Maddali is at the pinnacle of her career with Pharma Voice 2021 Top 100 Most Inspiring Leaders in the Life Sciences and Healthcare Industry Award, and NJBiz selecting her as one of the Healthcare Heroes Finalists in the “Innovation- Individual” category, amongst several others. She serves as advisory board member of numerous US/International based patient advocacy associations including Paltown, Love Heals Cancer, and Indo-US Rare disease organization, amongst others. She has served as a Vice Chair for the Women in Bio (WIB) Philadelphia chapter.

“Medicine is no more one drug for all. It is right drug for the right patient,” stated Dr. Maddali. Elaborating further, she said the .1 percent different in DNA in each person determines how each person is prone to diseases or how quickly they can recover from it. Precision medicine, she notes is based on the genes and the genetic modifications, and while some are cancers, for example are inherited, most are induced. Underlining the importance of paying attention what one eats, emotions we feel and surround ourselves with, Dr. Maddali said Precision Medicine is not just about designing a drug based on unique bio markers and genes, but also about Precision Health, which strives to prevent diseases by addressing them at a microbial level. Even at the wellness level, Dr. Maddali said, a recent science publication showed that people who found ways to remain hopeful either through meditation, mindfulness or a prayer and any means to calm themselves in a stressful situation, there are positive genetic modifications at the immune level. Furthermore, she advices caregivers to research advocacy groups such as GRYT Health, one of the most empathetic business models she has worked with.

AI solutions Dr. Maddali explains can be applicable to monitoring the patient, assist with medical diagnosis, Robotic assisted surgeries, AI enabled video games that help doctors understand complicated cases, Drug discovery, prescription errors, virtual nursing assistance, and many more. In the dearth of specialists such as radiologists, Dr. Maddali notes that AI can used for image analysis. As a member of the COVID task force, she said AI algorithm was used effectively to distinguish between pneumonia, viral infection and COVID infection – a difference that could easily be overlooked by naked eye. Dr. Maddali also alluded to the huge economic impact with AI being part of both medical and engineering applications. “In the next 10-20 years a visual pipeline of biological appliances could create approximately double digit trillion opportunities with direct annual impact. There are more AI jobs and less AI professionals. And since AI can be cross applied, it is a huge opportunity for anyone that would like to pursue the field and they should!,” she advises.

“Wake me when I am CEO (Chief Empowerment Officer). You should empower your own life with right  thoughts and right actions. Then you are the CEO of your life. Live life to the fullest. Dream, Dream and Dream and be aware of that dream,” is her message to the world.

Life in a petri dish – The scientist in Dr. Maddali prompts her to use this phrase extending its meaning beyond science. Petri dish, Dr. Maddali explains is “living laboratory” in a dish covered with a slight plastic, transparent cover. In one of her experiments, Dr. Maddali used a pig’s heart cell to understand why men beyond 50 suffer cardiovascular diseases, or “cortisol rush impact on the heart cell”. In backtracking her life to clearly understand what may have caused her current condition, Dr. Maddali compares her own heart cells throbbing in the cortisol rush being in an “atomic life” staying away from her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Having grown up in amidst a joint family of twenty, Dr. Maddali always had someone around to share her cheers and tears. “Despite a good job, house, car, atomic family, I did not realize the bonding and the ecosystem that a universal family gives versus modern-day atomic families. The social environment and the integrated ecosystem have a tremendous impact and unique approaches to how we handle day-to-day stresses and life’s responsibilities,” she writes. This, she notes applies most in times of distress, such as a miscarriages (that she suffered). Miscarriage, she writes is filled with a “painful cocktail of shock, depression at a cellular level like a cell with no movement in a petri dish”. “The more I thought the more convinced that my neurological condition might be because of the stress; I had gone through being a warrior student, miscarriages, new mother, family life, homemaker and full-time career.,” she observes. While she cannot prove it medically, Dr. Madalli believes that running her body like machines without taking the time to repair and recover has perhaps “over-fired” her neurons and those specialized cells of the nervous system and several types of cells in the immune system and various body parts like muscles, heart cells, etc., which control our day-to-day responses and reactions. “It is not as easy as a “cell in a petri dish.”

Becoming a Kamala: “Once it was clear to me that the cause of my condition was extreme anguish, stress, and sadness, I decided to change that part about me. If an educated and employed woman like me could be put through life stress, how about those less fortunate ones who do not have either the knowledge or infrastructure. I wanted to shout to the world of women, asking them to take care of their minds, bodies, and emotions,” Dr. Maddali writes. And she started with herself. Methodically chalking out a spiritual solution, Dr. Maddali made a list of things that made her feel positive, such as prayer, meditation, knowledge, memories, empathy, gratitude, forgiveness, among others. Applying one of the prayers that brings her peace “Sarvesham Svastir Bhavatu” (May there be happiness in all), Dr. Maddali embarked on a more purposeful journey in healthcare. “This awakening of purpose through my prayer bloomed the petal of enlightenment. The more I explored chanting and meditation, the more I was at peace.” I know that my purpose is to live my life as a Kamala and build circles of Kamalas along my journey through Petals of Empowerment, Education, and Empathy.”

“I consider myself a changemaker, a Kamala who lives by the Mahatma Gandhi mantra of love and service of others. Let us “become the change that we want to see.” Bloom the Kamala within you with a thousand blossoms of gratitude.”

In a world where public display of happiness reigns supreme, it is rare and refreshing to discover actual stories of individuals who not only speak and express their physical and mental distress but unravel paths to overcome adversity every day on their personal front and soar to the peak of their profession. Most of us today deflect and disguise pain when all it truly wants is to be seen, heard, understood and ultimately, accepted. If you are ready to challenge your own beliefs and find the freedom of expression to provide a voice to your muted pain and bloom into something beautiful, Becoming a Kamala will guide you well.

Learn more about Becoming a Kamala at https://becomingakamala.com/

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