Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I brought a cutting from one of Older Cousin’s plants home when I was in college. I kept it in a glass of water until it grew roots, then carefully put it in a pot and hoped it would grow. I was jealous of Older Cousin’s plants in their huge containers, branching and spreading under the large windows in the living room of her loft apartment.

When M was here, I picked up a new container at Target. I selected the medium sized one, then replaced it to pick up the largest pot available.

“I think this is the next size up.” I told her, then shrugged at my realization that I seldom judge size correctly.

“Wow.” I said when I got it home and realized it was several times larger than the current pot. Regardless, I dumped in new soil and moved the plant into its mansion-like home. “Now the schefflara thinks it’s a tree!”

When I returned home I noticed that my plant - which has steadily grown and branched over the last 8 years and 4 living spaces - is beautiful. It looks strong and healthy and tall in its new environment. And while the new pot helped – it made a difference that I notice each time I enter my kitchen – the growth over time was the crucial part of the process.

“I think it’s time for me to leave.” I told Pastor and she replied that she’d heard mixed reviews of my institution.

“I can see why.” I mused. “In some ways, it’s exceptional. The people and resources and potential is stunning. There are some moments when I’m relatively certain I’ll never do better than I could do here. But I just don’t think I fit. The emotional support and sense of camaraderie that I value doesn’t exist here for me, though I’m sure it does for others. I feel isolated and unimportant and if I’m not good enough for some of my colleagues, then I’ll simply go elsewhere.”

We talked more about it – she sweetly said she’d hate to see me leave, which I think is kind – but my instinct is to withdraw from those who seem to like me less than she does. Plus, I read a couple of emails today that were thoughtful and lovely and helped a great deal. I do tend to cling to what I know, be it a familiar environment or grief or other bad feelings. It’s hard for me to let much of anything go and there is a valid point – made several times by several people – that holding to the old so tightly leaves little room for new. I think I really need the new start. And to do that, I need to start releasing my grip on some aspects of life here.

“Would it be the same anywhere?” Pastor asked, more curious than judgmental, and I responded thoughtfully rather than defensively.

“Some of it.” I decided. “But I think I know which questions to ask, how I think research should be structured, what I need to do my projects and feel good in general.” I had looked forward to meeting her, but hadn’t expected I’d have a professional crisis of sorts to discuss.

“Does it hurt your ability to function as a scientist?” Pastor asked as we talked at Starbucks this morning. “Caring so much?”

She had shared stories from her time as a hospital chaplain and said that she thought my response was normal and could even be helpful when dealing with patients and families. We talked and I cried a bit more and then, having spent an hour longer with her than I’d planned, I came home instead of arriving late at work.

The answer to her question is complicated.

“No,” I replied, thinking that I could analyze data and write papers just as well now as I could when I thought my patient was improving with treatment. But in terms of being capable of trying again, getting more data, meeting more people? I don’t know. It has altered the way I see the project.

I have a meeting tomorrow, scheduled weeks ago, to ask for money to continue to collect data for this project. Quiet Mentor has decided to fund a different direction, which is fair and valid, but I have this data that appears to be interesting and relevant and I’d like to get enough to write a paper. I like papers, after all. They make me feel productive and successful and special. So more of that, right?

Yet when I received email this evening informing me that the abstract I submitted for review as a prospective poster was awarded a talk instead, I sighed. It’s a good thing, I told myself. I’m not familiar with the conference, but a talk means some exposure to those attending. Plus, it’s good to get practice when one is planning to interview, right?

But it means that I need more data. Which means meeting more patients and risking more pain for a project that is – I don’t know – interesting? Because it really isn’t helpful, folks.

Yet another reader sent a lovely note that brought up some points I hadn’t considered. My patient did want to participate – felt strongly that she wanted to contribute to research in this area and was a wonderful subject. I also enjoyed spending time with her. The fact is that these are people with lives and families and interests. They take vacations and read books and go to church. It is impossible for me to reduce them to points on a line or bins in a histogram. When I interact with them, it is with respect and gratitude and the sincere wish that their health greatly improves. I am kind and attentive and interested far more in their well being than my data points.

“I think that’s important.” Pastor said. “I think your attitude serves them in a different way than your research might.”

And a favored reader echoed those thoughts. It matters when someone visits, even if she wants your participation in research. It’s important to have someone ask questions and listen to answers. Perhaps some participation in something that can help others makes your time inside hospital walls seem more meaningful or at least eases the boredom for a little while.

So while I absolutely must devise a way of staying informed of patient status so that I’m not so surprised and inadequate again, I am glad I spoke to her husband. Was able to offer my sympathy and appreciation and listen while he talked for a little while. I’m glad I know of her interest in research and improvements in care. She was lovely and I am deeply sorry she suffered during her battle.

Regardless of its planter, the schefflera is a schefflera. It can’t change its leaf structure, though I can coax it to branch out rather than grow tall. It goes toward the sun and gets lopsided if I forget to turn the pot at regular intervals. Its lengthy leaves droop when the soil gets too dry, but that means it provides reminders to water all the plants in my collection. But even with spotty care, it grew and found a pot that allows it to look truly stately and tree-like.

It’s not that the old pot was bad – it was actually prettier and more expensive than the new one. It just wasn’t quite right.

The point, I think, is that I’m learning and growing. I’m going to stumble and droop while I process certain events and problems. I’ll likely complain if people don’t encourage me frequently or I lean too far in one direction because support and opportunity always come from that direction. Regardless, I am making professional progress. The papers and chapter and abstracts are adding up. The techniques and collaborations and experience are – when considered collectively – satisfying. I am OK. It’s just that I’m still learning.

In doing so, tomorrow appears to be the day to have the conversation with Boss about the grant. I remain unsure as to how exactly I’ll approach it – I’ll probably go with something other than ‘I’m root bound! I need a new pot!’ – but I think it will be fine. I also think I’ll come up with a way to be less devastated but remain connected to those with whom I get to work.

But I remain - for today - a bit droopy.


The Contessa said...

Beautiful Katie!

What a lovely analogy.

I'm sure things will turn out OK.

Learning curves are tough no matter how steep they are.

"as I grow older I have less confidence that man can learn from it's own mistakes."

You are proof that this is WRONG. You are amazing.

Psycgirl said...

Wonderful post Katie - you always see analogies in places I would never notice them. It sounds like you are putting a lot of thought into your possible move. I also cling to the familiar, no matter how much I dislike it or how maladaptive it may be. If I feel like its time to start moving on, it definitely is. I think you might be right.

If you come North near Medium Sized City we'll have to meet up. I could use another quiet friend :)

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