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From despair, local lawyer finds happiness

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

April 1st, 2009

Inna Pullin

Inna Pullin

Milwaukee attorney and mother of three Inna Pullin has discovered happiness by traveling a harrowing road — a path not of her own choosing.

At 36 and well into her third pregnancy, Pullin, who was alone in a room with an MRI machine, learned from a doctor speaking with her by phone that she had a malignant brain tumor.

He told her that she was being admitted to the hospital and that he would call her husband, Eric Pullin, who was teaching at Carthage College in Kenosha, an hour away.

It was August 31, 2007 — her tenth wedding anniversary. “It was the worst day of my life,” Pullin told The Chronicle in a telephone interview last week.

Later, after an emergency Caesarian delivery of her daughter, Ariella, Pullin underwent further testing to pinpoint the type and location of the tumor. She learned that it was a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma tumor — a slow growing tumor that may have been in her brain stem for 30 years.

“So there I was with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and a doctor at Froedtert Hospital told me, ‘This is simply not the kind of tumor people recover from.’”

But Pullin, now bursting with energy and gratitude, said, “The miracles started then and there, and at this point I’ve stopped counting [them].”

One miracle, Pullin said, is that “I am married to my husband, who is by nature a researcher.” He started to research her disease with all of the knowledge and skill he used in his academic career. He was at the time completing his doctoral dissertation relating to the history of India.

He contacted all of the top brain surgeons in the U.S. At first, he tried mailing them Inna’s MRI films, but that took too long, so he put them on the Internet, Inna said. By October the Pullins had decided to seek surgical treatment from a specialist in Houston.

She counts among the miracles that the doctor she consulted at Froedtert had the humility to say that they were not able to provide the surgery she needed.

Another was the unflagging care of her Russian Jewish mother who came from Chicago the day she was diagnosed and stayed at her side until the day she was able to care for her children again.

“The thing that melts my heart is that my mother has taught me to walk twice. She has taught me to talk twice — it speaks so much about her.”

And also, “every part of the Milwaukee and Chicago Jewish community rallied. We got lists of people who would take care of our children. Food came from everywhere” for more than six months.

 Finding her mission

Even though she has her own law practice, three small children and several new ventures in the works, Pullin’s gratitude for all of the miracles and the insights that her survival have awakened in her are the main business of her life these days.

After her surgery in October 2007, it took her until January 2008 to recover. During and since her recovery, she has thought deeply about the meaning of this terrible journey.

Born in Russia, Pullin came to Chicago with her family at the age of 6. She said she and her husband met while monitoring  an anti-Semitic rally at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned her undergraduate and law degrees, “We became religious in college, but my parents are agnostics,” she said.

The Pullins moved to Milwaukee in 1997 to the Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah community in Glendale.

While Inna was a patient in Houston, the Pullins spent time at the Lubavitch-run Aishel House “a kind of Jewish Ronald McDonald House,” and Pullin talked with the rabbi there about her near-death experience.

In her humility and gratitude for the miracles she asked him, “How do I deserve all this?” He said she must use the life that was restored to her.

She came to believe “that every single soul has a unique mission that no other soul ever could or will be able to fulfill.”

Pullin said that she knows that she survived because her soul has not yet fulfilled its mission. “Every morning that I wake up, I know this and it has made me a better person.”

Through deep thought, weekly study (via telephone) with a rabbi in Israel and daily telephone study with a partner in Milwaukee, Pullin focuses on her discovery “that everything in your life, everything that happens, is there to help you fulfill your mission. The more you are aware of it consciously, the happier you will be.”

Having fought a lifelong tendency toward depression — a condition that may have been related to her brain tumor — Pullin said “I prayed so hard for God to let me see light, to help me become happy. And God sent me a brain tumor and that was the answer to my prayers.”

Now focusing on her days with her “soul mate” Eric, three children, community and law clients, as well as starting a new business, writing a book, and speaking about her journey, Pullin said her life couldn’t be better.

“I feel so lucky that I got this brain tumor so early in life because now I can use the lessons I have learned from it for my whole life,” she said.