As I sit here at PBS, the day before my last, full of a delicious ice cream cupcake courtesy of Christine Montgomery, who somehow turned my last staff meeting into a Michelle farewell party (embarrassed!), many emotions swirl through my head.
On Monday, I’ll be on 33rd Street in Manhattan, in a giant building with the initials “AP” on it. And I’ve already started receiving meeting invites. On Saturday, I’ll be taking a train up to New York and visiting relatives and friends I haven’t seen in months or years, during my two-day transition from one job to the next.
But today, Thursday, it’s all about PBS, a company I’m leaving tomorrow. There’s so much I haven’t said about what happened at PBS, and there’s no need to go into it. I was hired for a project which didn’t come to fruition. I sought to change a culture, but in the end, recognized I couldn’t. No one’s fault, it just wasn’t to be. And much like how Mary Poppins goes where children need her, when my mission does not match my organization’s, I must go to the organization that is a match. (Hi, new colleagues!)
Today, I presented a speech on a book that influenced my life, as part of a PBS team-building assignment. As I’ve been fighting some health issues, and figuring out what to do professionally, I’ve realized the importance of trying to changing what I can, and recognizing what I can’t. It’s thanks to a fantastic book called Happiness in A Storm, written by Dr. Wendy Harpham, a doctor-turned-cancer-patient. I wrote the speech out, and thought I would share it with you here, as a window into my tumultuous world, and this month’s excuse for why the blog has gone relatively radio silent.
Also, Christine suggested I post this — three times no less– and being as she is one of my bosses for another 28 hours or so, who am I to say no to her request?
“A book that’s influenced my life? It’s a difficult question for a bookworm. I suppose I’ve always been one of the weird ones. And I’ve turned to books for comfort when it gets rough. So, I could tell you about my love for Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and how my favorite quote in high school was, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer, no matter how measured or far away.” I’ll spare you. Or in college, this English major embraced pieces from Shakespeare to Steinbeck, and also held a soft spot in her heart for more contemporary pieces like The Power of One and Life of Pi, tales of people on mental and physical quests who often had to go it alone, and ultimately triumphed based on both their own gumption as well as finding “their people” who were able to help them out.
Those were my plans, when this exercise was first introduced. But these past few months, nothing in my life seems to go according to plan. I took a job here at PBS where I shared priorities with a powerhouse team, and was going to make vast changes at a big operation that I’d loved since I was nearly an infant. We don’t need to rehash what happened, but what PBS News is now simply isn’t what it was then.
Unrelated: I had a kidney transplant five years ago, which I needed because of an aggressive kidney disease known as IgA Nephropathy, which caused my immune system to attack my kidney as if it were foreign. But after June of 2006, I thought I would be in excellent health for decades to come. Then this past April, the kidney disease returned.
In both cases, I determined to fight to pursue my now dual mission: to bring interactive and digital and data journalism to PBS, and simultaneously save my own life, no big deal. I pushed longer hours, and then I missed days and weeks of work to receive life-saving meds that destroyed my hair and stamina. I refused to take either one lying down, while at the same time asking myself, “What was the point?”, wondering if I would live another year. I turned to family, friends, and mentors. And one of my mentors from journalism school pointed me to an editor of mine for Poynter Online, a website dedicated to online journalism where I contribute articles about data journalism. Turns out Julie Moos had been through some life crises as well. Among much other sage wisdom, she recommended a book called “Happiness In A Storm: Facing Illness and Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor”. And these days – it spoke to me; it’s the story of my life — happiness in a storm. I devoured it all the time –over a long weekend in the hospital, taking the Metro to work, at night before I fell asleep. The words of Dr. Wendy Harpham, who treated patients as a general internist for years before repeated bouts with cancer forced her to give up her practice, and embrace being a patient herself, truly spoke to me. She wrote all about the power of hope, and how to take positive action. I recommend this book to anyone, whether you have a chronic illness or not.
Most powerful anecdote in the book – Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters – one for danger, and one for opportunity. The book helped me realize that as the project I came to PBS to work on pivoted, and my health was not what I thought, I could accept it with complacency, or seek to take decisive action. I could learn more about medical science than I ever thought possible on any beat. I would be determined to embrace the opportunity to change my health and my work for the better. I would show my life’s problems my middle finger and say, “Who do you think you are?” I would embrace the fact that we learn the most about ourselves when we’re faced with trials in life.
Harpham writes that hope is the mental image of your goals. You take what is, and project what can be. So, when things are rough, instead of thinking about how horribly rough they are, think about how they can get better. And then, instead of just sitting around hoping, part of being a Healthy Survivor is changing what you can, and accepting what you just aren’t able to change. I can’t stop my hair from falling out, but I can distract others and myself from the issue by wearing fun hats. I can’t get my stamina back, but I can think about how much I enjoy my work, and why it’s important to me that I go into the office.
Harpham writes about “Bumblebee patients,” people who aren’t expected to survive, but somehow they do. Life’s little miracles. I never would have believed how much I have been able to accomplish here at PBS. I brought journalism into open.PBS. I talked to folks across the country about a type of journalism they never knew existed. I made tools to help others, and crafted whole stories from start to finish on my own. I reduced protein being output from my body from 4,000 units to 400 in three months. I went back to work full-time during chemo, after some medical leaves of absence. I executed a successful job search during a recession while working full-time during chemo. The lesson being: Never give up.
Harpham wrote while she usually speaks of looking ahead to her whole life, once a friend caught her saying she’d be lucky to live to next year, and reprimanded her accordingly. That’s not helping with positive thinking! Believe in something better, that you will make it through all of it, do what you can to make that happen. Then, it’s more likely to do so.
Adjust to an imperfect system that can help you. Hospitals are not ideal. I’m guilty of yelling at nurses when it takes seven hours to release me from the hospital. I do things on deadlines, darn it! But Harpham reminds us that as frustrating as the system is, there’s a system for a reason, and overall it’s designed to help you get better. The more specialized your condition, the more you really need this care, whatever it takes.
On the other hand, if the system is detrimental to your well-being in some way, and you can find a better one, do it. If you fundamentally disagree with your doctor’s philosophy, you’re not obligated to stay with them. I now have an appointment scheduled with my third kidney specialist in the Washington area. If a doctor just sees me as a number, or say I should go on long-term disability, they’re out. I’m looking to live my life and care for my health. Like this morning, I was in for a blood test by 7:30, out by 8:15, and at PBS well before nine. Functioning at work as if no illness had transpired. Harpham points out that this is tied to realistic hope. Getting a second-doctor to reread a scan diagnosing cancer – realistic. Going to the eighth doctor? Not so much. I’m not looking for a doctor to deny my illness, but I am looking for one who has a humanistic treatment approach.
It’s no one’s fault my autoimmune disease chooses to attack my body. And it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to take action. One of my future supervisors, Jonathan Stray, wrote on Twitter, “The only way to stop getting clobbered by the future is to invent it yourself.” And that’s exactly what I’m seeking to do in my personal and professional life.”