Our best UCLA Health stories of 2022

Writers of the UCLA Health Content Team share their most powerful, informative, uplifting stories of the year.

Writer Sandy Cohen

Amid the national conversation around gender-affirming surgery, what it does and who it’s for, I got to meet a warm, open-hearted woman directly affected by these questions.

Chloe Corcoran had come out as transgender in her early 30s. For the longest time, she felt she couldn’t, because she’d been a football player in high school and in college. “I’m one of the last people anyone would have pictured transitioning,” she told me.

But she was so miserable, she wanted to end her life.

Long before I met Chloe, I’d contemplated how painful it would be to feel like you were born in the wrong body. I never knew that was an experience some people had until I saw the 1999 movie “Boys Don’t Cry,” which starred a then-unknown Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, a real-life transgender man who was raped and murdered in 1993 when his “friends” learned he’d been declared female at birth.

Sandy Cohen (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

My heart broke to witness Brandon’s struggle to be himself. It’s hard enough to feel at home in your body when your gender identity matches your physical biology. Not only do transgender people have to overcome discomfort inside their own bodies, but they often contend with contempt and misunderstanding from the outside, too.

I wanted to understand this experience as I wrote “Facial feminization surgery gives Chloe Corcoran new joy for life.” Yet I was afraid of probing too much and potentially making a verbal misstep as I asked Chloe about her life and her journey.

I felt my heart sink when she said how much she’d hated her life before transitioning; how, after transitioning, she’d been assaulted on the street. When she moved from New York to California, she drove the whole way without using a public bathroom out of fear for her safety. Part of the reason she wanted facial feminization surgery, which she ultimately received at UCLA Health, was so she would appear “less visibly trans.”

“It’s safer on the streets,” she said.

Actually getting the surgery took years. There were insurance hoops to jump through and COVID-19 delays. She felt worse than expected after the operation and endured weeks of healing.

But then she could finally see herself in the mirror — the self she’d been waiting to see. The surgery not only gave Chloe new optimism, but a sense of self-love she’d never had before. It was so palpable, my own spirits lifted as I heard the joy in her voice.

I was so moved by her vulnerability as she openly shared her story with me, a perfect stranger asking deeply personal questions. And I was inspired at how important it is to her to be visible and speak out, not only as a beacon for her community, but to help cisgender people — even haters — begin to see the humanity of transgender people.

I was proud to shine a light on UCLA Health’s expertise in providing gender-affirming surgery, but even more grateful to meet Chloe and play a role in her mission to educate and inspire.

Other favorites from 2022

“A welcoming face at the Ukraine border”: When war broke out in Europe, recreational therapist Christie Nelson saw an opportunity to serve. She traveled to Ukraine on her own dime and established a women’s and children’s center for Ukrainians escaping their country. I was inspired by her selflessness and determination to help.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, but in reporting and writing The Price I learned how deep a toll it’s taken on health care workers. Their stories of pain and resilience reminded me how committed these caregivers are and how they also need care themselves.

Pitch of a lifetime: Dr. Langston Holly threw out the first ball on Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium: Dr. Langston Holly is a Los Angeles native who has loved baseball and admired Jackie Robinson his whole life, so getting to throw out the first pitch on Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium was a convergence of three things he holds dear. He overflowed with gratitude and excitement about the opportunity, making me think, “Star neurosurgeons: They’re just like us!”

Formerly conjoined twins celebrate 21st birthday: The separation of Guatemalan conjoined twins known as “the two Marias” made international news two decades ago, and many of the nurses, physicians and other hospital employees who made their surgery a success still work at UCLA Health. The twins’ 21st birthday was a celebration for all of them.

My top 5

Writer Chayil Champion

In my profession, I have the luxury of learning so much from the world of medicine. To be able to pull from the minds of the brightest physicians and clinicians and then write stories about their work and research is invaluable.

As I reflect on all the stories I have written this year, a few of my favorites come to mind.

Chayil Champion (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Felix Baltazar needed a lung transplant after being diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in June 2021. After undergoing several tests to determine his viability for a transplant, Felix learned that he also had a heart condition. Needless to say, the dual diagnosis was a blow to Felix and his family.

As a patient at UC San Francisco Health system, Felix was told he couldn't get the lung transplant due to his heart condition, and he was referred to UCLA Health.

Felix and his wife, Peggy, moved to Los Angeles in September 2021 and met Abbas Ardehali, MD, director of the UCLA Heart, Lung Transplant programs. In December 2021, Felix was placed on the transplant list. Four months later, on April 14, 2022, he received his lung transplant, but not before Dr. Ardehali performed a coronary bypass on Felix’s heart. Within the same incision, he followed up with the lung transplant.

It was truly a fascinating story that showed the resilience of a patient as well as the expertise and resources of the UCLA Health system.

Other favorites from 2022

As a former athlete, it’s no wonder that my second favorite story involves an athlete. “How this UCLA linebacker gives back through gaming” tells the story of Hayden Nelson, a UCLA Bruins football player who donates his time by playing video games with child patients at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.

UCLA medical team a ‘Godsend’ for lung-transplant patient” highlights Angela Tofilau’s 14-year fight for her life. After battling with several illnesses, Angela contracted pseudomonas, a bacterial infection of the lungs. She received a lung transplant at UCLA Health in 2022 and is now enjoying life with her family.

If you’re a man and you haven’t met Jesse Mills, MD, director of the Men’s Clinic at UCLA Health, you should. My piece “Dr. Mills wants men to pay more attention to their health” shows how the urologist guides men to take better care of themselves in his 2022 book, “A Field Guide to Men’s Health.”

Rounding out my top five is a story about a vegetable that many kids grew up detesting. But I love it when, as adults, we learn about the power of a vegetable and quickly add it to our diets. “Broccoli and other cruciferous veggies can significantly lower cancer risks” describes how foods can change – even save – your life. As a writer, my intent will always be to give readers information that does just that – change and save lives.

My top 5

Writer Jocelyn Apodaca Schlossberg

“A mom’s wish for her son to walk without crutches is realized” was my most personally meaningful story in 2022. The medical journey of Efrain, a 10-year-old boy who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with his family in search of an opportunity to walk without crutches, emphasizes the love, time and care that our doctors – in Efrian’s case Dr. Anthony Scaduto and Dr. Nicholas Bernthal – provide to their patients.

After interviewing the family, I reflected specifically on the challenges that Efrain and his family faced – navigating health care in a new country, not speaking the dominant language, economic strain, and other barriers such as transportation. It warmed my heart to watch how cared for this family was by the entire medical team.

Jocelyn Apodaca Schlossberg (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)
Efrain’s joy and resilience was another reason this story was so meaningful. He was born with a congenital femoral deficiency that caused one leg to be shorter than the other. He had been through so much already and despite that, he laughed, he played, he adapted, he overcame. And he was still so young.

This story is incredible for so many reasons, not the least of which is the details of the procedure itself. The rotationplasty, as it is called, involves rotating the foot and leg backward and making the ankle a functioning joint in place of the knee.


Other favorites from 2022

I spoke with our patient Gloria Riley for the story “Colorectal cancer screenings require building trust with patients.” I admired how honest Gloria was when it came to her fears about being screened for colon cancer. Through trust and compassionate and persistent care, her primary care physician, Dr. John Mafi, was able to get through to her the importance of the test. Gloria's story is like that of so many patients. It is humbling to see that our doctors at UCLA Health truly care and follow up.

“Meant to be here and more to give” is a story about a handful of first-generation medical students and the common themes that weave their stories together. I left these interviews feeling inspired and as if I had just chatted with friends. As a former first-generation student myself, I know these stories are essential to share, to show younger generations that paths may not be paved, but they are possible.

In February, I learned that a suspicious mole on my ankle was melanoma, which required a skin graft. The rates of melanoma among Hispanic/Latinos have increased significantly over the past decade. I’m grateful to have been able to write about my experience in “Melanoma has risen by 20% among Latinos. I’m one of them” and to share my story with so many others in similar positions.

Much of my writing has focused on historically underrepresented populations and this includes people in jails or prisons or those recently released. In researching How psychiatry residents help stop the jail-to-streets cycles I learned so much from these residents who do part-time work for county programs helping people get the care they need.

My top 5