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Women whose hunches changed -- or saved -- their lives

That nagging little voice you hear inside your head can help you a lot.
That nagging little voice you hear inside your head can help you a lot.
  • During a trip to Jamaica, Maryam Dilakian recognized her soon-to-be son after one smile
  • Trisha Coburn's dreams led her to push doctors to discover her colon cancer
  • Writer Stephanie Pearson got an urge to leave her companions to avoid potential danger

( -- Three women share their stories of how a feeling or hunch changed the direction of their lives.

Her little boy found

Nothing signaled distress about the laughing 5-year-old child that Maryam Dilakian saw -- except a strange, insistent feeling in her gut.
--As told to Kate Rockwood

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. What real love looks like

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. A working mom adopts 5 kids

Her trouble went deeper than doctors knew

Her doctor assured her she was in good health, but eerie dreams left Trisha Coburn with a sense of foreboding she couldn't shake.
--As told to Lisa Kogan

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. How to tune in to the voice within

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."

How to use your intuition

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. Listen to your body's early-warning system

Calculating danger

The scariest thing about intuition? Realizing too late that you were right.
Stephanie Pearson

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 5'10"), 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." O's worst-case scenario handbook

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.

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