Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Back (and Forth) to Work

When it rains
When a region is severely lacking adequate moisture, rain is precious and welcome. Even when one is walking with her dog, happily moving through a muggy yet cloudy morning. Poor Chienne – who hates the rain – plodded toward home with head down and eyes squinted. I took off my glasses – I couldn’t see through them anyway – and felt my clothing grow heavy as it retained water.

We arrived, sopping wet, and I wiped my face before toweling off the puppy. She hopped in the guest bathtub to hide from any thunder that might occur and I obligingly turned on the fan to mask the noise as much as possible. Then I shook my head as I peeked outside to see the rain had ceased, took off my dripping shirt and sleepy pants and hopped in the shower to make sure I was fully wet.

Evolve (you, not me)
A driving style that makes me moderately competent in Chicago means I’m frighteningly aggressive here in the polite South. Before I even left my subdivision, I found myself speaking sternly to the driver in front of me.

“A monkey could handle that corner better, for crying out loud. Evolve!”

I continued to sneer and call people names as I moved through moderate traffic that should have allowed for a quick trip to work had people just stayed out of my way.

Yet when I drove through tree-lined streets with lovely cottages that take me toward campus, I felt a strange sense of homecoming. I know this area now – have taken several routes to get to work and know which is fastest. I felt ready to tackle the mountain of work that awaited me, hopeful that the time outside the single meeting on my calendar would be sufficient. I was pleased to return to the office and basked in the feeling.

I was immediately assaulted with questions – “How was your trip?” “Did you get my email?” “Do you know this fact?” “Have you tried this analysis?” – and tried to answer them all in turn as I waded through email I hadn’t been able to fully address remotely. After 50 messages that were read, answered or filed (not bad for a week away, I thought), I was left with only a few that remained in my inbox.

Appalled, I tell you.
“I am appalled,” Carrie said, serious and calm, to her colleague after reading a grant proposal, “that you would copy and paste some of my text and not include me in your list of collaborators.”

“I know.” The erstwhile woman said apologetically, “but I didn’t have room for more people.”

Carrie’s gaze remained steady and the fellow assistant professor looked down and said she’d have the administrative staff add Carrie’s name the next day.

“There are problems anywhere.” Carrie noted as we later wandered the streets of Chicago. “But I have far fewer than many people. So it’s my job to minimize the ones I have.”

“But ‘appalled’?” I breathed. “That’s strong language! And you were so calm! Wow.”

“I like ‘appalled.’ I use it a lot. And she’s not a bad person – the mistake just had to be corrected.”

Thinking of the penguin’s project – over a year in the collaborating – I wondered if it had been submitted without my name. Deciding it would be ridiculous (and appalling!) to use my data without a single person from my field as an author, I sent an email letting him know that if he couldn’t publish the work, I’d be happy to take it back and give it a shot. Considering I hadn’t heard from him in months, I was pleased when my email earned a same-day response.

Attached was a beautifully written draft that is – I think – impressive. I sighed with relief at seeing my name third in a lengthy list of contributors. Since the top two authors “contributed equally” (something I’d heard but never seen), I’m pleased with my position. Considering that my work takes up more than half of the paper, my spot is well earned. But knowing that I don’t have the clout to back up the claims they make, I’m satisfied with being part of their efforts rather than writing something on my own. I did some editing tonight and will send a revised version after I speak with Boss tomorrow. All was well.

It pours.
I noticed on my calendar that it was time to schedule a follow-up visit with one of my patients. So I checked my availability and equipment calendars and arranged my notes to call later in the day. But I had free time and I didn’t want to forget, so about 30 minutes before my meeting, I made a quick call.

“Hi.” I chirped when her husband answered the phone. “This is Katie from Department at Institution. I did a research visit with Patient a few weeks ago? I was calling to see how she was and if she felt up for returning for another visit. Is this [Husband’s name]?”

“Oh, Katie,” He sighed. “She died.”

I paused for a moment, feeling oddly yet completely shocked. I expressed my deepest sympathy and we talked for a few moments while I’m sure he heard tears in my voice. I was dabbing my eyes and taking gulping breaths to retain control as we spoke, feeling terribly inadequate to address a grieving spouse of someone I knew very little but liked a great deal.

I placed the receiver gently in its cradle, pressing my fingers to it for a moment. I could feel Ken and Maria looking at me, waiting for me to speak so they could respond. I kept my head down, pushing back tears, and walked to the nearest single-stall bathroom, closed and locked the door, braced my hands on the sink and cried.

I breathed deeply, told myself to pull it together, then splashed water on my face. Then I cried some more. I tried to sigh and heard a whimper emerge instead. I tried again to wash my face, dabbed my eyes again then went back to my desk. I sat silently, trying to read penguin’s paper and prepare for the meeting and somehow feeling dull and unfocused and sad.

I hate being surprised by grief. And working with cancer patients should – for me – have involved some sort of emotional preparation for an event like today. Yet I wasn’t ready – was considering calendars and costs rather than wondering if a patient was doing well enough for a follow-up experiment.

I still feel that tightness in my chest that reminds me something bad happened. As I sat through a meeting feeling completely irritable and snapping at Boss and some other upper level people, I felt bad. When Boss tried to speak to me afterward, he finally paused to consider me, wondering at my flat responses. I was trying to stay distant so I didn’t weep – I’m uncomfortable crying in front of people but there was all this pain trying to leak out.

“Is your mom OK?” He asked after some silence.

“She’s fine. My patient died.” I offered, then turned to rudely walk away so I could find a private place to stop the tears. I turned halfway down the hall to nod when he said we’d talk tomorrow.

“I hate to say that these things happen.” He offered quietly. “But…”

I disappeared around a corner without a response, finding his statement unsatisfactory. Friend did a much better job, but I need to turn it over in my mind a bit more.

It’s very sad. I liked her, enjoyed her family. I wanted her to be OK – for her to be one of the stories that ends well because medicines work and treatments are effective and cancer is beaten back so that there are a few more years to be with those people she loved.

I don’t feel responsible. But I do feel inadequate. What I do isn’t going to help these people. I’ll study and learn and publish, but it won’t matter all that much in the end.

So I left work early and have huddled at home, unable to relax. I’ve tried to watch TV, wrinkled my nose at the leftovers in my kitchen, showered twice, tried to nap, finished reading the paper and tried to put together some thoughts on my grant.

My thought when Boss gave me his notes on said grant was that I want to leave. My feelings have changed since this morning and rather than feeling comfortable, I feel trapped. This has been a rather sad place for me. I’ve certainly grown and learned, but I’ve also wept in every one of those bathrooms in the department. I miss my family – I want to help lift Little One down from her car seat. To watch for butterflies and listen to her stories. To talk with my mom and sigh at Dad’s jokes. I want to move north in about a year. Hence, I don’t feel like submitting this grant.

So tomorrow, I think Boss and I are going to have a talk about how we see the future. Perhaps I’ll cave and make some minor corrections and resubmit that grant. Or maybe we’ll decide it’s time for me to take what I’ve learned, take this year to wrap it up, and say my good-byes. Until then, my particular path will continue back and forth as it has tended to do thus far.

1 comment:

Estrella said...

As you wrote this yesterday, I'm guessing you had your talk with Boss today. I can't imagine how terrifying and emotionally-draining it would be to work in an environment where you watch people suffer but are powerless to ease their pain. I wish I knew the words to write to ease YOUR pain. As I can't find them, I'm simply going to pray that God will lead you where He needs you most, and that He'll give you the strength and courage to trust Him to do that and the patience to wait until He reveals His plan to you.

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