Thy Huskey was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and left shortly before Communists took over the South Vietnamese government.
“I don’t have a Miss Saigon story — no standing on the roof of the U.S. Embassy as helicopters swooped down,” she says. “I got on a transport plane with my parents and three siblings and we went to Guam first, and then to the U.S.”
In Vietnam, her father was a civil engineer working with the U.S. State Department, and her mother taught physics and chemistry. When the downfall was imminent, her father’s colleagues arranged for the family to emigrate to the United States.
“I was 4 at the time, so I don’t remember much,” says Huskey, MD, associate professor of neurology in the Division of Neuro-Rehabilitation of the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
The family settled in Fairfax, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. Life was drastically different in the United States for her parents, who both had to re-earn their degrees while working several jobs and raising their family.
“In Vietnam, my siblings and I went to a private French school, my dad had a chauffeur, and my mom had people to help her cook and clean,” she said. “In the U.S., they had to start all over.”
But education remained a top priority. She remembers her father telling his friends more than once that all of his children would be doctors.
“His friends were probably thinking he was a little crazy, since they were struggling financially,” she says. “But he was right — all four of us graduated from medical school.“
A lifelong goal
Huskey says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t know she was going to be a physician. She remembers being 7 years old and talking to a friend of her parents who was an obstetrician.
“I asked him what he did, and he said, ‘Imagine you’re in a room with four people, and suddenly there are five.’ That was magical to me.”
Huskey got on a fast track to medicine through Northwestern University’s Honors Program in Medical Education.
“You had three years of undergraduate work to pursue whatever you wanted, and I knew what I wanted, so I went to summer school to consolidate undergrad into two years,” she says.
Now a physiatrist, Huskey works with patients who have had traumatic brain injuries and strokes, developing treatment plans and overseeing the therapy needed to help them regain function, daily living skills and independence.
Her research involves patients who have had a stroke and have difficulty coordinating their muscles to swallow. Many of these patients use feeding tubes to get nourishment, and they often find it emotionally difficult and demeaning.
Huskey has helped implement a program at The Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis to help get the swallowing function back.
“It breaks the spirit to suddenly be unable to swallow,” she says. “By giving these patients small amounts of water, we’ve found that it safely exercises their oral muscles and pharynx without causing infection, and this seems to improve the speed of recovery.”
In April of her second year at Northwestern, she met Tim Huskey, a St. Louis native and the man who eventually would become her husband. He was a senior there, with plans to go to England after graduation.
“There’s a famous room in the library at Northwestern called the Map Room, surrounded by maps of the world,” Huskey says. “Tim and I would study together in there and talk about the places we’d go someday.”
After Tim left for Europe, they kept in touch through handwritten letters.
“These were the days before email and social media,” she says.
While an undergraduate at Northwestern, Huskey began having severe shoulder pain, hand numbness and fatigue, but doctors dismissed it because she was very active and so busy with schoolwork.
That summer, back at her parents’ home, she went to other physicians looking for answers.
“They worked up African sleeping sickness and all types of weird things,” she says. “Then an MRI showed multiple sclerosis (MS).”
After her diagnosis, Huskey stopped writing to Tim, prompting a call from him. She told him she had tested positive for MS and thought their relationship would end, and he would move on.
“I remember he said, ‘Is that my decision or yours?’ and I thought, ‘OK, I guess it’s yours,’ and he said he wanted to hang out and see what happened,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what any of this means, but I don’t feel alone right now.’”
She was set to begin medical school in September 1991 but went to England to study for a year instead, as her scholarship allowed an extra year to study. One of her favorite courses was “Beyond Religion,” in which the class studied the writings of philosopher Martin Buber.
“I was raised Catholic, but the writings of Buber, a Jewish theologian, helped me feel that I wasn’t forsaken,” she says.
She scheduled her classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so she could travel through Europe with Tim. Although he returned to the United States in January 1992, she stayed to complete her year of study. They continued to write to each other.
“I came to terms with what was happening after he left England. I was angry and was going through the stages of grieving, ” she says. “I finally emerged from that year comfortable with my faith and my situation.”
Dealing with disease
Huskey started medical school determined to be a neurologist because she had a neurological disease. But spending time in the hospital as a patient with MS exacerbations each year, she met James Sliwa, DO, who would help direct her care during medical school.
Sliwa is director of the residency program in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and chief medical officer at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He introduced Huskey to the potential afforded by rehabilitation medicine, and ultimately, inspired her to choose that specialty.
“I learned while on my neurology rotation that I wanted to be an integral part of the care, and rehabilitation medicine offers that opportunity,” she says.
Despite her disease, Huskey was able to walk into medical school on the first day and walk at her graduation with a cane. But residency was a different story. Huskey had to rely on assistive technology — first a scooter, then a wheelchair — and that was not something she took to easily.
“I was a stinker every step of the way,” she admits. “I hated whatever I had to use.”
Although she initially struggled having to use assistive technology, Huskey has come to accept her condition and doesn’t let it slow her down.
“Thy is a spectacular human being,” says Maurizio Corbetta, MD, the Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology and chief of the Division of Neuro-Rehabilitation. “The welfare and needs of her patients always come first on her list of priorities.
“She is so dedicated; several winter evenings, you will see her zipping around the medical center in snow and sleet while coming back from Barnes-Jewish Hospital for a late consult,” he says. “She has been instrumental in growing our stroke rehabilitation program.”
Outside of work, the Huskeys are St. Louis Cardinals’ season ticketholders and rarely miss home games.
“Game 6 of the 2011 World Series was one of the most exciting nights of our lives,” she says.
Fast Facts about Thy Huskey
Favorite St. Louis restaurant: Mai Lee, where her favorite dish is Banh Xeo
Favorite Musician/song: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”
Favorite artist: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Favorite place to be: In front of the Trevi Fountain, eating gelato, in Rome
Favorite movies: It’s a Wonderful Life and High Fidelity
Last book read: The Big Short by Michael Lewis