There’s that question parents and uncles ask kids. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We all ask it. Kids don’t have a clue. Parents aren’t much better at giving advice. The job choices I had won’t exist for my grand children. Today’s process of getting a job bears little resemblance to what I went through. What I’m trying to say here is that parents have no idea what a kid should do. In the end, I’m not sure anyone has very good advice. My mother thought I could be a good TV repair man. Judy’s grandmother thought I did something with telephones. What would I be when I grew up?
I rewrote this post several times. All I wanted to do was describe how I chose two jobs that were important to me. Describing those two choices was difficult, more than I thought it would be. It’s hard to find similarities between the two jobs. More importantly, neither job was anywhere near what I thought was a possibility, but both were exactly what I wanted to do. One relates to my many experiences with the medical establishment, but let’s start with my early time at IBM.
As a young engineer at IBM I changed jobs every couple of years as each project finished and the team moved to the next product. Each time the project completed everyone had similar choices … what do I want to do next. Sometimes the choice was made for me. For example, one of my managers, Dick T, made it clear that my next job was in diagnostics, where I thought I didn’t want to go. He was right, and that was one of the best learning experiences of my career. Other times the choices were completely up to me. As I look back on that ignorant twenty or thirty something making that kind of decision — it’s a scary thought. Sometimes it took me a long time to find the right job, going through some not so spiffy experiences along the way.
I had jobs as a computer chip designer, design systems, department manager, project management, quality, and I don’t remember what else. Along the way I formed an idea of where I wanted to end up. One of my jobs actually met that goal, almost perfectly. That is where I worked the last fifteen years with IBM.
Starting when I was about thirty it became clear that my forte was not designing computer chips. There was something better for me. The idea came to me that I didn’t want to be that closely associated with a specific product, designing it and getting it ready. I wanted to do more with IBM’s customers. I wanted to help them solve their problems. Several of my jobs moved me in that direction, but until 1997 none of them really got me there.
That’s when I stopped in at a customer meeting in Room 1100. There were about thirty customers in the room, all asking for product improvements in everything from computer hardware to scheduling software. The engineers thought they knew what they could deliver, the customers thought they knew what they wanted. Everyone disagreed on what the priorities were. This seemed to be a room full of intractable problems. I was buzzed. They called themselves the Large User Group, affectionately known around IBM as “The LUG.”
Someone needed to herd these cats. I wanted the job. It was highly technical because the customers were asking for specific changes to the hardware and operating system for the AS/400 (since renamed the iSeries, System i, and Power Systems in later years). I had to understand what they were asking for, know who could solve the problem, get the customers and engineers together, then make sure something good happened. (Remember, we had established years ago that designing the changes wasn’t my forte.)
When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up I had only a vague idea what the best job would be. After twenty-five years of working, the opportunity was there, and it was right. That job worked for me for over fifteen years. Then I retired and another “perfect” job showed up.
If this was a television documentary, there’d be music and a commercial break here.
You may remember that I have Crohn’s disease. That experience gave me nearly a dozen abdominal surgeries between 1990 and 2004. Some went well. Others not so good. All were uncomfortable. None were fun or even pleasant. There are all the indignities of routine hospital care. The medical teams speak in jargon. For example, they told me they’d be doing a TNA and assumed I’d know what that was. Then they want me to undress, which is not something I usually do outside my bedroom or a hotel room. It’s just weird. After undressing there’s the gown and wristband. Then things get weirder and they do things that people get arrested for outside a surgical suite.
Yes, I understand the need for the gown and wristband, and the constant asking who I am and what’s my birthday and what they’re doing today. But nobody does that at Target! The unpleasantness gets stranger. Then the phlebotomist installs an IV line. The transformation from person to patient is complete. I am not in control of anything. At home I decide which room to be in, what I’m doing, but not here. Just wait here, she says. I can’t go down for coffee. Cell phones don’t work in this room. My little brain is pre-occupied with what’s going to happen, so even reading is impossible. All I can do is wait. Then wait some more. Maybe think a little.
It’s like a foreign land. The smell, the decor, the language. Everything is different. They know what is going on. I don’t. For most foreign lands there’s a Rick Steves book to learn from. I never found a Rick Steves book for abdominal surgery. I’ve read lots of non-fiction books and medical memoirs trying to understand, and I’ve learned so much. Most interesting are the ones where doctors become the patient. Then they get it. Other doctors don’t read those books.
Anyway, it wasn’t clear that they understood what I was going through. For years I tried to think of a way to communicate my frustration to the docs. No way. One on one they didn’t have the time or didn’t get it. Maybe I just couldn’t describe my feelings?
One time at my routine physical, my doctor said “When we’re done with the medical stuff, I have an opportunity for you.” Ugh, I thought, an opportunity at IBM is not something to look forward to. How could this be anything good?
Here’s how: The Mayo Clinic has a habit of listening to its patients to find ways to improve their practice. Bill thought I’d be a good candidate for something they were trying in the GI department. Other departments at Mayo had had good success with Patient Family Advisory Councils and this department thought it would work for them. It turned out that a friend of mine, Shalini, was the administrator running the program for the department. I gave it a try.
There were a half-dozen or so patients on the council, and a similar number of doctors and affiliated medical staff. The committee was effective, advising on several changes they planned to implement in the GI department. It still feels good every time I check out after an appointment when the clinical assistant gives me my doctor’s card. That’s a change we discussed at length at the PFAC. Another item we reviewed and modified was the patient instructions on colonoscopy preparation. Most of the staff were too young or healthy to have ever had that procedure, and every one of the patients on the council had already had several experiences. I’ll just say the instructions are better now, and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
For those of you who think you don’t make a difference as just one person, think again. The demise of the GI PFAC might help sway your opinion. My friend Shalini transferred to another department and the physician who drove the PFAC from the medical side transferred to Mayo’s Florida branch. The council didn’t last another two months. Those two people made it happen. Other PFACs are operating well at Mayo, but the GI version is dormant.
A couple of years after that experience, it was my good luck to be in the same doctor’s office for another routine physical. I had just retired from IBM. Once again, he said “When we’re done with the medical stuff, I have an opportunity for you.” Ugh, I thought, an opportunity at IBM is not something to look forward to. Apparently he thought I had time to spare. How could this be anything good?
Here’s how: All medical studies in the US must go through an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to make sure researchers honor the rights of research subjects. (Think back to old Dr Joe Mengele in the early forties.) Each review board must have community representation; a “man on the street” who’s not a doc and not associated with the institution. There was an opening on the Mayo Clinic board. Bill had floated the idea several years earlier when I had dropped back to part-time at IBM, but I had wisely declined. He thought I’d be perfect for the job.
He may have been right this time. I accepted the job in January of 2015. In this position I get to advise researchers on what can and cannot be done to regular folks who volunteer for experimentation. Much of the job is routine, but at just about every meeting there’s at least one study that has a question we end up discussing at length. The job isn’t what I thought would be; it’s even better. I get to see what’s happening in the research labs at a major medical institution, and I have a chance to debate with highly educated people about important topics. There is a little pay, but the money is trivial. This is fun, and I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do for years.
In these cases I had this germ of an idea, but had absolutely no idea what it meant. If someone had asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, none of these ideas would have made it into the conversation. I didn’t know these jobs existed. Now I know more, and it’s been a great ride.
Maybe there’s something else for me to do in a couple of years. I just don’t know what it is. Yet.