Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

It All Started with a Dream

A soft thud resounded through the silence as my canoe hit the bank. What was that? Oh, we’ve docked. Is this a river or a lake? I should really go find my history textbook. I should get out of this bed. I should wake up. Wait. Why do I have so much blood on my wrist?

Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

That feeling of confusion mixed with anxiety and pain is something that I will always remember. It’s a memory, or rather a dream from my coma induced mind from four years ago. There I was, sitting in the hospital with a brain disease so rare that there were barely any reported cases. I open my eyes and turn my head to the left- it hurts so much just to do that little motion. I look at my bedside, and there sits my mother whose face distinctly reflects my own agony. I close my eyes, wanting so badly to return to that convoluted dream, but the distinct smell of the hospital room keeps me awake and still clueless.

It takes me about a week to come to terms with my state: I can’t walk, I’ve lost far too much weight, and I can’t even tell you who the president is. Later that month, I also figure out that I can’t hold a pencil, I don’t remember calculus, and I can’t pick up my laptop.

Weren’t all 15 year old girls supposed to be bright and energetic? I wasn’t even close. Those months were filled some of the most arduous things I’ve been through, but the journey was yet to start. I’m thankful for that struggle though, because there was a light at the end of that tunnel.

As Stephen Colbert once mentioned in an interview with Oprah, everyone has two names; one given and one secret.

On paper, I’m Aishwarya.

My secret name is this disease.

It’s something that will characterize the rest of my life, just like my given name, but it has remained rather a secret until now. Every single time I look back on that year, tears come to my eyes. I wish I could go back and hold that younger version of myself and tell her that it was all going to be okay. That I would eventually pass those calculus exams and write an English paper. That I would get off the medication and learn to love my body and mind. That I could stand up and dance again.

I still find it difficult to put my frustration with that illness into words. Why was I misdiagnosed? Why did it relapse? Why did I have to take so much of medication? And why wasn’t I back in school?

Those are the questions that continue to pain me today, and that is why I study Computer Science. Now, it may not seem like a very linear career progression, but let me explain. The summer after I came home from the hospital, I had the opportunity to attend a Girls Who Code program, and for my final project, I built something that addressed a problem I faced as a patient — a personal medicine dispenser, using an Arduino and a couple of motors. It wasn’t pretty or sophisticated, but it worked. I had always wanted to be a doctor, but now I had a reason to become an engineer.

I was pretty certain that Computer Science could do more, so I began to explore how technology and medicine could collaborate to create something more powerful. As I continue to study, there’s always a thought in the back of my mind that urges me to consider the medical applications or build a side project along those lines.

It has taken me about four years to understand this, but that disease was a gift. It gave me a purpose and it taught me how to push forward even though it seems like nothing is going right. I still remember that feeling of elation when I first picked up my backpack again after a month of letting someone else carry it for me.

It reminds me that even if all I had was perseverance, I could still succeed.

This is the story of why I study Computer Science. It’s something that I’ve been meaning to write for a very long time, but I never found the courage to do it. I’ve told this story to a couple people, but every time I spoke I tried so hard to be nonchalant and make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal. I hope I’ve been able to convey the importance that this disease has on my life.

It’s been a week since I came back from the Grace Hopper Conference, and my biggest takeaway is that every woman in tech deserves to tell her story.

I’ve told mine, but now it’s time to listen to yours.