5 Women Whose Hunches Changed—or Saved—Their Lives
Photo: Sona Astoyam
I was in Jamaica for a wedding, and I felt the pull to volunteer. The resort manager directed me to a few orphanages that might admit visitors, and one reluctantly said that I could come.
The place had three sections, and I ended up spending my time with the infants and toddlers, because I'd heard the bigger kids didn't need help. As I was leaving, I passed three of the older kids running around. One of them was laughing really loudly, and I smiled at him as I walked away.
I've never been able to adequately describe what happened next. Outside, the taxi was waiting, at the top of a hill quite far from town, and when I went out, someone locked the gate behind me. I opened the door of the cab, put my bag on the seat, and all at once I knew I needed to help the little boy I'd smiled at—he was in trouble. It made no sense: He'd been laughing when I saw him; he didn't look like he needed me at all. But my heart started to race and I began to feel physically numb. The thought kept coming again and again—I need to help him.
Going back into the orphanage wasn't easy. I had to argue with the driver to wait and then buzz until someone came to unlock the gate. They weren't happy to see me.
The schoolers were outside, and the boy I'd seen—Daniel—was on the ground, looking absolutely pitiful. He was like a different child. I have never in my life fought back tears so hard as at that moment. I fell to my knees and embraced him and I knew instantly, without a doubt: This is my son.
Later I realized that he must have just been punished. On trips that followed, I saw Daniel physically abused when he got in the way. He's a boisterous kid. He runs a lot, he laughs a lot.
I learned that children in Jamaican orphanages normally stay six months, until the court decides they can return to their family or be adopted. But Daniel's file had been lost, so he never had a chance. He lived in that home for three and a half years, standing in a crib, looking at a wall. No music—no nothing. He'd never been out of the orphanage. He didn't even speak.
When I went to the adoption agency, the man said, "You cannot adopt a child that doesn't exist." I showed him Daniel's photo, and said, "Here is this child." It took me six trips to Jamaica to set things right.
Two weeks after Daniel came to live with me in New York City, he started speaking. I tell him this story every day. I don't let myself imagine, What if I'd gotten in the cab? It felt inevitable—he'd always been my son.
—As told to Kate Rockwood
Next: Recurrent dreams that saved one woman's life
Photo: Olivia Barr
I was 46 years old, I had three terrific kids, a happy marriage, and a painting studio where I spent hours every day. Not only was nothing wrong in my life, plenty was incredibly right. But then I had the dream.
I was standing at a barbed-wire fence across from five or six terribly frail people with huge dark eyes and ghostly pale skin. They were trying to tell me something in a language I didn't understand. It was intense and disturbing, and it left me rattled.
A week later I had the dream again, only this time there were a dozen people trying to get me to grasp what they were saying.
The following week the dream returned, but now there were 20 people, and they looked desperate. I woke up crying. I started feeling afraid to go to sleep.
Even though my husband thought I was overreacting, I called my doctor to schedule a physical. I didn't know what else to do. The receptionist pointed out that I'd just had a physical six months earlier; the most I could talk her into was some new blood work. At the appointment, I told the doctor I felt that something wasn't right. He smiled. "You eat well, you exercise, you're healthy. Quit worrying." Two days later, his nurse called to say my blood work was fine. I relaxed and figured I could put my fears behind me.
A week later, the dream was back. There must have been 100 people—wailing, screaming, pleading with me. I kept saying, "I don't know what you want from me! Please, please tell me what I'm supposed to do."
A few days later, the fifth and final dream: Back at the fence, only this time nobody is there. I fall to my knees, sobbing, "Come back. I need you to help me." And suddenly I hear one voice. And that voice says two words—in perfect English: "Look deeper."
I called my doctor the minute his office opened. "What's the deepest place in the human body?" He said, "I suppose it's the colon." And I said, "Then I want a colonoscopy." He explained that I had no family history of colon cancer, no symptoms, that insurance would never cover it. I persisted.
I told the gastroenterologist I wanted to be awake for the procedure. I watched the camera twisting and turning and following the curves through my colon, and then I heard the doctor draw a breath and say, "Oh my." There, on the screen, was a black mass. And the doctor promptly put me to sleep.
It was cancer—aggressive and fast moving. She later told me that if I'd waited even two months, my prognosis would have been...grim.
—As told to Lisa Kogan
Next: After hitching a ride in Chile, instincts told one woman to take no chances
Photo: Sam Patton
To do research for a magazine story, I once spent a few days at a lodge in a remote part of Chile, on Lago General Carrera. After leaving the lodge, I was scheduled to take a puddle jumper to Balmaceda, a town near the lake's opposite shore. When high winds forced the pilot to cancel the flight, the lodge owner patched together a plan B: His wife would drop me off in the closest village, where an acquaintance would pick me up and shuttle me the final four-hour stretch to Balmaceda. The route would pass through a few towns and two military checkpoints. The rest: empty wilderness.
After the woman introduced me to the driver in Chile Chico and waved goodbye, three stocky, good-looking men appeared out of nowhere and jumped into the backseat of the Toyota Hilux. They were bomberos, or firemen, they told me, on their way to a conference in Balmaceda. "Interesting timing," I thought, since it was Good Friday in a Catholic country where all business had ground to a halt for the next few days.
We started driving and the buddies started joking, first about my wedding ring—"I didn't know she was married," one said—then about my height (I'm 510), then about my hair (I'm blonde). My heart started to beat faster. To distract myself, I flipped open my Lonely Planet guide and landed by chance on the "Women Travelers" section. The first sentence I read: "If you hitchhike, exercise caution and especially avoid getting into a vehicle with more than one man."
A dozen ugly scenarios reeled through my brain. Most of them ended with me in a ditch. My heart was racing and my chest felt tight. I opened my window; I couldn't get enough air. And that's how it went for the next hour, the men joking while I tried to breathe and wondered if today was going to be my last day on Earth.
As we rolled into the first town, I said I had to go to the bathroom, but after I hopped out of the truck, I told the driver I'd decided to stay in Los Antiguos for the night.
"¡Buen viaje!" I said, backing away as the bomberos hurled a tirade of unflattering Spanish, cursing me, the ungrateful gringa. The truck idled there for a few minutes, as if the men were deliberating what to do, then squealed off.
After spending the night with a local family, I made it to Balmaceda the next day. Maybe the delay was silly. Maybe I'd caved in to an irrational fear and offended four harmless men for nothing. I'll never know. All I could do at the time was act on my internal SOS signals. Had I ignored them and wound up in trouble, my prescient notions would have proved true. But by then it would have been too late.
Next: A bizarre impulse led her to the man of none of her dreams
Photo: Kristin Hahn
In 1996 I was 27, traveling the world as a photojournalist. That winter I'd spent a month living in Paris, and I returned home to Los Angeles broke. But as I sorted through my stack of mail, I found an invitation to a birthday party in Minnesota for a film director I'd met only twice before, and I was overwhelmed by a feeling—a sense of absolute knowledge—that I was supposed to go. I'd have to borrow money, something I'd never done before. But the feeling was so strong, I couldn't ignore it, so I asked my grandmother to lend me $200 for airfare.
The guy who had introduced me to the film director showed up at the Minnesota party, too. His name was Temple; we knew each other from dinner parties in L.A., but he had moved to Chicago earlier that year. This was the first time since we'd met that neither of us was dating anyone, and we spent the entire evening together. Surrounded by generations of a strong, happy family, we talked about our parents' divorces and contemplated what made people stay together. Just before he left for the airport, Temple asked me, "How do you know who you're supposed to be with?"
I told him the love story of my grandparents. In 1938 my grandmother boarded a Greyhound bus, and the driver winked at her, then flirted with her, then treated her to lunch at a small inn off the highway. Three years later she married the bus driver. She told me she knew he was the one because when she was with him, she felt like her best self.
When I finished, Temple said, "Well, then, we should be married." This is someone I had never even kissed. But I'd never been more sure of anything in my life.
Ten months later, we tied the knot, and this spring, Temple and I celebrated our 14th anniversary. I'm grateful, every day, that I listened to my heart.
—As told to Dana Hudepohl
Next: The devastating flash of insight that taught one woman to listen to her intuition
Photo: Suzanne Guillette
It was late summer 2009: I was walking on a Long Island beach with my boyfriend, Mark*, and some friends. When I saw Mark sit down next to his friend Dana on a craggy rock, a sudden electric shock traveled straight up the center of my body. It was so visceral it made me stumble. And then my mind flashed to a recent dream I'd had of Dana sitting on Mark's lap as he rode a bike.
"Don't be crazy", I chided myself, turning to watch the surfers in the water. "They're just friends."
But one night nine months later, after we'd turned off our bedroom lights, Mark confessed that he and Dana had had an affair. I was furious at him for lying to me, but as I remembered the flash I'd had at the beach, I realized I was a liar, too. I'd been deceiving myself all along.
Two weeks later, I moved out—and promised myself to pay much closer attention to my gut, even if all it was saying was "Turn left!" And with this intention, everything has changed.
One afternoon I overheard a woman saying she wasn't sure when her friend's birthday was, and to my surprise, an answer landed in my head: today. I don't know if I was right or wrong, but I felt a quiet humming in my chest, and thought, "This must be what it feels like to trust your gut."
During an e-mail exchange with Mark in the weeks after we broke up, I had a nagging suspicion that he wasn't keeping the exchange confidential. "Can you assure me you won't show these e-mails to anyone?" I wrote. Although he said, "Yes," I later scrolled down the chain and saw a note he'd forgotten to delete—from his friend Sonya.
Each time I had a flash, I realized that listening to it—or not—had consequences. Once, I got into a cab and suddenly remembered the dream I'd had the night before, about a taxi accident. As I tried to convince myself I was safe, the real-life cab rear-ended the car in front of us.
And while hunting for a new place to live, I had an overwhelmingly positive feeling about a Craigslist message from a woman named Grazia Vita ("Thank You Life") who was subletting a room in her apartment. It turned out that her building was one I'd happened to pass—and fall in love with—just the night before.
My adventures in intuition even led me back to romance. After I decided on a whim to stop at a café I rarely went to, an attractive man struck up a conversation. Three hours later, he asked, "Can I take you to dinner?"
My brain wanted to say, "You hardly know him." "This could be a disaster." But by then, I knew better than to ignore the pleasant buzzing in my body. So I said yes. And I haven't had a single regret.
From the August 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.