GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Dr. Yuna Sinskey has been known to dress up in a unicorn costume to cheer up her patients at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, as a play on her name, Yuna the Unicorn.

What those patients may not realize is the empathy she has for the anxiety and fear they may be feeling during their care. She still feels it, even as a physician, especially when waiting for her test results.

“Literally, about 30 minutes before this interview, I got my results back from my doctor, my oncologist, and she said it was negative, so I’m super, super excited,” Sinskey said.

After starting it five years ago, she is getting ready to graduate from the residency program at Mary Free Bed. It’s only a four-year program, but the hospital allowed her to take a year off to get cancer treatment.

Sinskey was in the middle of her residency when COVID-19 hit the U.S. and felt tired like most of her coworkers, but she felt this was more than pandemic fatigue. She also had some rectal bleeding, which she thought could be hemorrhoids, but she underwent a scan to be sure.

“We were chit-chatting about how difficult residency is and COVID, how things have changed. Then, it was all-of-a-sudden silent, completely silent. As a physician myself, I know what that means,” she said.

Testing confirmed she had rectal cancer, which is easy to miss due to the lack of symptoms in most cases. Doctors typically suggest patients look for dark blood, but since the rectum is so close to the body’s exit, bleeding from a tumor doesn’t turn dark.

Without her medical training, Sinskey doesn’t think she would have sought care as soon as she did.

“There was a lot of back and forth on whether we should do chemo or surgery first. The final decision was they felt I was stage one, so they were going to go for surgery,” Sinskey said.

The surgery was complicated and not only led to several more operations, but it also led to the discovery that she was stage 3. It meant she would have to go through a much longer treatment plan than anticipated. One of her arteries herniated internally following her resection surgery, which caused ischemic bowel.

“Meaning all your bowels die because it no longer had the blood supply, it got cut off because it got absorbed into the belly,” she said. 

Sinskey was on the west coast at this time, receiving care at the same hospital where her sister works as a pediatric anesthesiologist.

Though Sinskey and her brother and sister were born in the U.S., their parents moved them back to South Korea when Sinskey was 3. Her parents still live there.

The pandemic prevented them from coming to the U.S. to be here for their daughter, so Sinksey’s sister, Jina, was all she had. Doctors told Jina her bowels were “likely nonviable with life anymore at this stage,” which is a clinical way of saying Sinskey was likely going to die.

“Even now, when she calls me during the weekday, it scares me. I told her just text me ahead of time to tell me (you’re going to call) and that it’s not something terrible,” Dr. Jina Sinskey said.

She and her sister are incredibly close. They are four years apart and were roommates while Yuna Sinskey attended medical school in Boston.

“That means you can push each other’s buttons too. I think when difficult things happen, you’re just there unconditionally supporting each other,” she said of their relationship.

When doctors told her how bad her sister’s condition was, she wasn’t surprised.

“Watching her from a professional standpoint, I was like, she doesn’t look good. Then having everyone else around me confirming that that was really terrible… but I think what almost broke me was talking to my parents. I had to call them, and I had to call my brother to let them know,” she said.

An intensive care doctor involved in Yuna Sinskey’s surgery told her sister he lost his brother to something very similar.

“He said I won’t let this happen to you. I’m going to keep your sister alive,” Yuna Sinskey said.

Because of their closeness, Jina Sinskey knew about a similar experience Yuna Sinskey had in medical school.

“We said the exact same thing. We said nonviable with life, and all we can do is literally put our hands over (the patient) and say a prayer,” said Yuna Sinskey. “Twenty-four hours later, when we opened him back up, everything was alive.”

Knowing that Jina Sinskey asked her sister’s doctors to do the same thing.

She told them, “I understand this might sound crazy, but this happened, and it would really mean a lot if you could do that for us,” she told them. “Well, (Yuna’s bowels) just kept on getting better and better. They were like this is a miracle.”

“To come back to life and to work again is nothing short of a miracle. I think if I wasn’t in medicine and I didn’t know that for real, I would’ve just shrugged it off,” said Yuna Sinskey.

She did go back to work a year after her diagnosis. However, it was much more challenging than she expected. The surgery involved removing her rectum, the body’s reservoir for bowel movements. Without it, it becomes impossible to hold those bowel movements.

“I was going to the bathroom 30 times a day. I was starving myself all day so I could see my patients, and every week I would lose about 10 pounds. Over the weekend, I would eat nonstop to barely make it back up,” Yuna Sinskey said.

She wanted to quit, but Dr. Richard Ball, the director of the residency program, encouraged her to give it six months before making that decision.

“That was the best advice that I’ve ever received because six months later, I was happy. I was able to figure out how to properly do a bowel management program. So now I only go like once a day like I did before,” she said.

Yuna Sinskey always loved going to the hospital before her diagnosis because it was a fun place to see her friends and patients. But that changed when she became a patient.

“I remember I shivered through the door, walking through the door to get my MRI. I was just like the hospital lights felt so dim. So dark everything was so different,” she said.

Having that experience has changed the way Yuna Sinskey treats her patients. She said it was surprising how obvious it was whether her doctors cared or not and whether they were rushing or not. She also has better insight into what her patients need.

“When I was really sick and because of COVID, the hospital was closed. All I wanted to do was to go out on the balcony window, and I said I won’t even go out. I’m just going to open the window,” she said.

Months later, an employee sneaked her onto the balcony, letting her sit and soak up the sun for a few minutes.

“I was healed so much. So much of my soul, my mental well-being, my emotions were healed that day just by being able to go out,” she said.

The experience has helped her understand that healing comes from the patient, and the patient will tell their doctors what they need. Yuna Sinskey has given presentations to her colleagues about her experience and how it has helped her be a better physician, which she believes has led to better care in general at Mary Free Bed. She wishes she never went through it but is happy to be able to show that side and make a difference.