A Brain Hemorrhage Stole Yong Soon Min's Ability to Express Herself Through Art and Words. But Only for a While.
In her art and teaching, Yong Soon Min often explores discrimination, civil unrest, political divide, women's rights and Korean history.
The University of California, Irvine professor's creativity, which has been displayed in exhibitions around the world, has taken many forms, including film, sculpture and video. In 2010, funded by a Fulbright research grant, she returned to her homeland, South Korea, for a 10-month study of the gender role of women in Korean drama.
Excruciating headaches quickly brought her work to a stop. She was hospitalized in Seoul, where doctors studied images of her brain to figure out what had gone wrong. After a week with no clear answers, but medications controlling the pain, Min checked herself out of the hospital.
"I had all my motor functions, and once the headaches got better I felt like I was fine, and I wanted to do things. Korea's version of Thanksgiving was coming up, and I had made plans to travel with my (extended) family to an island," she recalled. "The doctors wanted to keep me longer, but I said, ‘I have plans.'"
She soon realized, however, that the powerful headaches would not be the last of her symptoms.
"Friends who visited me in the initial days said I wasn't speaking very clearly and I had switched gender terms, referring to myself as a ‘he.' I switched a lot of things, didn't stay on one subject for very long, and mixed up a lot of words. ‘Diaspora' became ‘diarrhea.' When I wanted to say ‘pyramid,' I said ‘pizza,'" she said, adding that her memory wasn't as sharp as before. "I thought I could just deal with it, and I felt that I should be there to finish the Fulbright study."
But her brother and numerous friends implored her to come back to the United States and get medical help. When she relented, they scoured the Internet for top specialists and found Steven Sykes, MD, neurologist, neurophysiologist and assistant clinical professor in the Cedars-Sinai Department of Neurology.
As a series of tests and scans began to focus on an abnormal tangle of blood vessels – an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM – Sykes referred Min to Michael Alexander, MD, professor and vice chair of the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Neurovascular Center.
Normally, tiny vessels called capillaries exist between arteries, which carry blood from the heart at high pressure, and veins, which return blood at low pressure. AVMs, which occur in 1 percent of the population, are areas where arteries connect directly to veins. Without capillaries to buffer the pressure differences, AVMs are susceptible to hemorrhaging. This can deprive part of the brain of normal blood flow and oxygen, and escaped blood can pool, creating pressure that injures other areas of the brain, even at a distance from the rupture.
Alexander said it is not uncommon for the source of a hemorrhage to elude detection for a while, as it did in Min's case.
"A little bit of bleeding can temporarily obscure visualizing the blood vessel malformation. When she came to us, her MRI definitely showed blood. She may have had a small amount of bleeding in Korea, which continued, and by the time she got here, it was bigger – a small malformation, but a relatively large bleed. This may be why her speech got a little bit worse over time," Alexander said.
He and Min discussed several treatment options before settling on surgery, which offered the possibility of an immediate cure.
"Her malformation was in the temporal lobe, which is right in front of the ear and a very common area for us to operate on," Alexander said. "Bleeding extended back to the area of the brain affecting her speech and word-finding skills, but the blood vessel malformation was not that deep. We used intraoperative, 3-D, computer-guided imaging to take it out. Cerebral angiograms performed right after surgery and a year later showed no evidence of recurrence."
Min said the care she received at Cedars-Sinai and the surgery performed by Alexander made it possible for her to return to South Korea a year later to complete her Fulbright research, but picking back up where the AVM forced her to leave off hasn't been easy.
"The brain bleed, as I call it, made me kind of stop for a couple of years. I'm just now getting back to the studio to think about what I want to do next. I have a feeling it will have something to do with language, in part, and in how to reassemble my identity, because emotionally, there have been lots of shifts. I think a lot of connections I had before just weren't there afterward, and I've had had to rethink my situation."
The Seoul hospital where she was first seen in is not far from where she spent the first years of her life with her mother and older brother, Dae. The trio joined her father in Northern California when she was 7. But those early memories of South Korea fed the curiosity and imagination of an artist in the making.
She earned a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees in the 1970s at the University of California, Berkeley. But her career may have been more powerfully influenced by campus visits in the 1960s when her brother attended the school. As she watched the U.S. civil rights movement unfold, she recognized parallels in her home country. The similarities came into sharper focus when she went to New York City to study at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
"New York opened my eyes to many Asian-American arts organizations," she said. "That's where I picked up my Asian-American consciousness."
After her treatment at Cedars-Sinai, Min resumed teaching, but she plans to retire soon and devote more time to creative pursuits.
"As an artist, one of the main concerns you always have is that you won't be forgotten, so you're always struggling to stay up with the art world, to stay current," she said. "The work is constantly evolving, and I'm still searching for what I want to do."