From time to time at the beginning of the semester, political science professor John Kayser tells his students that if he were to wake up to find a Porsche in his driveway, everyone would automatically get an A. He’s joking, of course, but once a student decided to joke back.
It was December 1992. The student was Kevin Yeung ’96 and he showed up at Kayser’s house one evening while Kayser was resting after minor knee surgery. Yeung carried a box of candy for Kayser’s wife and a wrapped package for his former professor. Inside: a toy Porsche.
“I remember my words: ‘Thanks, but grades are already in, the car is too small, and you received the A you earned, anyway,’” says Kayser, who in 2019 will have been teaching at UNH for 50 years. “We had become friends, and after he graduated, we stayed in touch.”
That miniature car would not be the last gift Yeung gave him.
A few years ago, Yeung invited Kayser to visit him in Hong Kong, where Yeung had grown up and returned to live in 1998. Kayser’s trip included custom-made clothing — a suit, shirts, even a pair of shoes. Last year, Yeung hosted Kayser in British Columbia; the former investment banker had moved to Vancouver in 2015. In between, there were trips to New York City.
But in the spring of 2016, Yeung gave Kayser something that was truly life-changing: He connected him with his former college roommate and good friend, Dr. Michael Lim ’95, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. That June, Lim cut into Kayser’s skull and, after a three-hour procedure, relieved him of a debilitating condition that had plagued him for years.
In other words: the best gift ever.
“I knew Kevin was close to John Kayser. He emailed me and told me John had trigeminal neuralgia and asked if I thought I could help him,” says Lim, who is also an associate professor of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. “I said, ‘Well, he’s lucky because I just happen to specialize in that.’”
Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) is a condition that causes sudden stabbing or shock-like facial pain that can last from mere seconds to several minutes, multiple times a day. In most cases, the condition is the result of an artery pressing against the trigeminal nerve, the large cranial nerve that is responsible for sensation in the face as well as critical motor functions such as biting and chewing. Over time, that pressure wears away the nerve covering, and even the least bit of physical contact can trigger excruciating pain. While not life-threatening, TN can radically impact an individual’s quality of life.
“Trigeminal neuralgia is so painful it can drop you to your knees,” Lim says. “It’s been described in history for a long time — it was written about in Moby Dick. It can be incapacitating.”
Less than 48 hours after surgery, Kayser returned home to New Hampshire and was back teaching in the fall.
The day after Lim received Yeung’s email, he contacted Kayser and told him about one of his areas of expertise: microvascular decompression surgery, a highly successful treatment for trigeminal neuralgia that involves removing a small piece of skull to access the nerve and then placing a sponge between it and the offending blood vessel.
“I was lucky I had an in,” Kayser says of getting on Lim’s busy schedule. “I’d been suffering from this for 40 years. The pain ran from my lip to my eye. It was paralyzing. The first time it happened, it was for one solid week. After that, it was on and off.”
For most of that time, Kayser had been able to manage his condition with medication, but in 2015 it stopped working. Consultations with surgeons had introduced him to two possible treatments: rhizotomy, which involves burning the nerve, and gamma knife radiosurgery, which directs a dose of radiation to the nerve. It was while trying to assess his options that Kayser remembered Yeung’s college roommate.
“I emailed Kevin and said, ‘Didn’t he become a brain surgeon?’ and the next day I heard from Mike,” Kayser says.
Lim performed the surgery in June 2016 — having refused to miss even a day of teaching to the condition, Kayser wanted to wait until after the semester ended to have the procedure — and had his patient up and walking the following day. Less than 48 hours after surgery, Kayser returned home to New Hampshire and was back teaching in the fall.
“Microvascular decompression is one of my favorite surgeries to do — I perform it three to four times a week,” says Lim. “Ninety percent of patients respond to treatment, and over a lifetime, there’s a 70 percent cure rate.”
TN is the most common cause of facial pain, Lim says, noting that of the estimated 15,000 people diagnosed each year, half undergo surgery. And many of those — like Kayser — are cured. So when Yeung reached out, Lim was happy to help.
[Yeung] credits Kayser with encouraging him to “consider all the angles; explore more than one set of data and take this information and really think” before reaching a conclusion.
Lim and Yeung became fast friends early on at UNH. They shared a room and more pizza than they ever thought anyone could eat. They offered each other support; Lim was majoring in biochemistry and Yeung, political science. Lim went on to med school while Yeung, who had been accepted to Columbia Law School, moved to New York City; he thought he wanted to be an attorney. Instead he ended up as an investment banker in Hong Kong who also was drawn to social issues. In 2011, he co-founded Feeding Hong Kong, the area’s first food bank, and in 2013 he was named fundraising chairman for UNICEF Hong Kong. Together with Lim and Ivan Ng, he cofounded FindDoc, a website and app that allows people in Hong Kong to find information about medical professionals online.
Today, Yeung, 43, describes himself as retired, although he remains an angel investor. He credits Kayser with encouraging him to “consider all the angles; explore more than one set of data and take this information and really think” before reaching a conclusion.
“Professor Kayser taught me the importance of being brave; the value of being independent,” Yeung says. “Part of the reason I stayed in touch with him is because much of what he shared with me 25 years ago in Durham, New Hampshire, I have used successfully in a career that has taken me around the world. For me to have found success, I needed people who saw potential in me and would give me chances to prove myself. Prof K did that.”
It’s hard to say who’s the bigger winner here. ”He’s given me so much,“ one says of the other. And then there is Lim. And the Porsche. It still sits near Kayser’s desk, a reminder of the past, of the beginning.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker
Originally published in UNH Magazine Fall 2017 Issue
I am thrilled that humans have been able to find ways to relieve suffering. Thank you to the three gentlemen in the article for sharing this personal story.
—Kitty Marple ’82
—Kristin Noon ’86