Tag Archives: medicine

W is for the Writing Center… and finding my special purpose. (Wink.)

I started working in the Michigan Tech Writing Center when I was a sophomore in college. I loved it there SO much– more than being an RA, more than rowing crew, more even than my actual major. I only worked 8 – 12 hours per week, depending on the semester, but those 8 – 12 hours were much more formative for me than any 15 – 20 credit course load I ever had.

The chem sci building-- where I basically lived for four years.
The chem sci building– where I basically lived for four years.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that I learned chemistry and physics and math (except differential equations– what a waste! I couldn’t even get a date out of that class, though I tried…) and such. It’s probably even good that I learned some things about myself by being an RA (which super sucked, but led to meeting my husband, so…) and rowing crew (which made my back, arms, and legs crazy strong for the year I did it, but just ended up being too much– let’s be honest here, I’m no athlete). Those are the things that made me look different from the outside, paid for my room and board, and filled in the bubbles on the GRE, but I’ve got to tell you, they are not the biggest things. The most influential things.

The most influential thing was absolutely, hands down, 100% for definitely sure the Writing Center.

The Writing Center. At an engineering university? That caters almost entirely to the most technically-minded of the nerds? In the middle of no where? I mean… the edge of no where?

Yes. The Writing Center. At Michigan Tech. Which is all those things, but such a hidden gem. (I should really recruit for the Huskies, I love that place so much.)


I’ve talked a little bit before about my boss in the Writing Center, Sylvia Matthews, and how absolutely amazing she was (is, to be sure). And I really think that it was she, Jill Arola, and Nancy Grimm and their ridiculously insightful ways of thinking, living, and educating that made it the special place that it was.

You see, in the Writing Center, it wasn’t so much about the grammar and the punctuation and the sentence structure and all the other technical aspects of writing that tend to give the vast majority of people either a headache or a panic attack. It was about understanding and being understood. About using words to do that. And the things I learned. Oy.

As part of working at the Writing Center, all of the coaches had to take a small, one credit course in which we discussed pedagogy and techniques and experiences and the like. At the end of every semester of “work,” we all wrote reflections about our experiences and what we had learned. I saved a couple of them. Not sure how exactly… they’ve definitely survived several major paper purges since I graduated in 2005, but listen to this one:

I can’t help but feel like this shows the the Writing Center is the place where I am supposed to be and the work I’m doing is important.

That was in 2004!

Pablo Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

Words, communicating with them… I think that’s my gift.

It’s not what I expected my gift to be. Nor is it what I thought it was or what I necessarily would have hoped for, but here we are. I think I finally found it.

It’s not like I just woke up one day in the recent past and liked writing or thought I was good at it.


My “gift” found me a long, long time ago. The Young Authors thing-a-ma-jig at Lincoln (who remembers that big book? how good it felt to have your story “published”?) was always awesome for me in elementary school. I loved the Independent Study in English I did with my cross country coach, Mr. Moran, my sophomore year in high school… and even now I’m still proud of the essay I vaguely remember writing about Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles… no idea what it was about, but guys, it was good.

Later on, in college, I got this rave review on a biochemistry report:

An absolute pleasure to read, etc... yay yay yay! A+!
An absolute pleasure to read, etc… yay yay yay! A+!

Yep, kept that too. It made me feel awesome!

And I loved the writing center so so so much.

Yet, my brain, my logic, my ACT results and aptitude tests and interests had me convinced that it was science science science all the way. Science would lead me to success. I would cure something, help someone, do sciencey things and make the world a better place by being noticed, by making a big impact.

A little piece of me must have known that wasn’t true. Because if it were, I’d be a chemist somewhere… working at 3M, inventing polymers and interpreting spectra and such, because I could have done that after college. But it didn’t seem right. Something wasn’t fitting and I wasn’t happy. So I went to grad school… where I wasn’t happy… and tried to go to med school… but I realized that was a very expensive path to continued unhappiness… so I stuck it in grad school… and came to the end… and still wasn’t very happy with my options.

It took all that time for me to admit to myself that I didn’t want to be a bench scientist. I didn’t want to run a lab. I didn’t want to come up with new ideas and new ways to test them.

So what did I like?

Talking about it. Always. Telling other people about science, about medicine, about dinosaurs, about whatever.

Thankfully, the universe, powers that be, whatever, know better than I do… and ultimately I ended up where I am now, as a scientific research writer at a big clinic. Back in what is, essentially, a post-collegiate writing center! I’m finally in a place where I use my gift on the regular.

Well, half of it anyway.

The other half was definitely this blog.

An illustrative example for you…

At work, I say “epistaxis as a result of digital trauma…”

On the Internet, I say “nosebleed because you dug too deep. Get your fingers out of there. Geez.”

A different way of saying exactly the same thing. One gets published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (hopefully) and the other makes someone laugh, but get it while they’re laughing.

And that’s the other half.

The things that makes me the happiest about writing now, at work and on the internet… and the thing that made me the happiest then, in the Writing Center… was the impact it had on people. And on me. Equal and opposite forces. An action and a reaction. Both things leaving the encounter changed.

At work, I help people make their science understandable and accessible. I cannot tell you how rewarding it is to see something in print, to get a funding notice for a grant… but most of all, to have an author I’ve previously worked with come back an improved writer. That’s the best best. (I’m talking to you, Dr. Kanth!) I learn about crazy things like deformed pancreases and what a vitamin D deficiency really does to your body (it’s not just rickets, yo)… I take that away, and someone takes something completely different away from me. A better technique for incorporating literature into a Discussion section, a modified sentence structure, a new way to format a table. Some little piece of communication.

It always happened that way at the Writing Center too. There was this kid one time, a freshman that I coached, and a professor made him cry in front of his entire class during the first week of school when he pronounced a word incorrectly. My heart broke for him. Absolutely broke. There was little I could actually do besides listen and encourage him and help him to communicate better. And seriously, by the end of the semester, he was volunteering to speak in front of the class. I’m not trying to say that was necessarily because of me, but I do know that he and I were both changed.

Here’s what I said about it on December 7, 2004 (Writing Center reflection style, again)–

I have been continually impressed with Jason this semester. He has determination and work ethic like no one I have ever met. I can say with confidence that having been faced with the same situation, I would have become very apathetic toward my work, sure that I could do nothing to please the teacher. I would have been very angry, but Jason never was. As much as I feel like I helped him to come out of his shell, he showed me the way that a person can handle difficulties gracefully. Through all of these difficulties, I am really glad that I got to be Jason’s coach.

And I think that maybe, just maybe, that’s what Picasso meant. When you give your gift away, this intangible gift that is the purpose of your life, you don’t lose anything. The little space you opened up is filled with something even better, something different and new and exciting. A new facet on your perspective. And the person who took that little piece of your gift away? They grow it– they grow it into something completely new, and different, and exciting inside themselves. Like planting a seed, or rooting a plant cutting.

At least, that’s what Picasso said means to me.

Communicating with words, erudite and crass, is my mission and my jam, my calling and my thang. I can do it for science, I can do it for life, I can do it for the twisted workings of my brain, and I can do it for others.

For others though, that’s my favorite part. I can brag about my sister-in-law if she’s having trouble doing herself (she’s always have trouble doing it herself– Sister Doctor just got the biggest honor you can get in all of medical school and tells people it’s “just” an organization thing. Sigh.). I can proofread and format a resume for someone who has lost a job. I can fix up a poster when someone panics a week before a conference. These are the things I can do. The gifts that I can share. Always something in return, of course, even if it’s just the satisfaction of having been able to do something when I would otherwise be helpless. And I like that so much.

The Writing Center helped me to find my special purpose… not the same special purpose that Steve Martin came across a little prematurely in The Jerk (Trista, let’s watch that this weekend! trip to Family Video!), but a special purpose in the sense that his mom really meant it. I couldn’t have done what I do now if I hadn’t pursued all of the sciences, so I’m glad that I did the chemistry degree and the grad school with all the STDs and the like, but at the time, science was always the goal. Not so, it turns out! The Writing Center was to be the place I circled back to, in another form, yes, but the same idea. I work with authors with all ranges of education levels, backgrounds, accents, talent and skill levels on far more topics than I could ever possibly fully understand, but regardless of all that– I help people get their words out, to be heard, to share, and in return, I am constantly changed.

It’s funny that way back in 2004, I worked so hard with other Writing Center coaches to present on what we called “The Ripple Effect” at a writing center conference… but only as an abstract and beautiful thing that I mostly hoped would happen. Good news: it did. It does. Always.

Here we are at that sweet writing center conference-- Sylvia right in the middle :)
Here we are at that sweet writing center conference– Sylvia right in the middle 🙂

Well… this is awkward. I go searching to find a link to take you to the Writing Center website and find out it’s now called the Michigan Tech Multiliteracies Center. Makes sense. Still in Walker 107. A rose by any other name, I guess! More importantly, M for Multiliteracies is basically just an upside-down W for Writing… so… we’re good.

Oh wait... apparently I did know. I took this picture when I was there for Winter Carnival in 2012. Well then...
Oh wait… apparently I did know. I took this picture when I was there for Winter Carnival in 2012. Well then…

A science project with a missing piece. Where are my shoes?

My sister-in-law Kayla, Sister Athletic Trainer, is an absolute genius at puzzles.

I don’t mean that Kayla likes puzzles, although I suspect she does. I mean that she is literally a puzzle genius. She can walk by a table holding a 12,000 piece puzzle entitled “sky on a cloudy day” and find at least 6 pairs of matching pieces before I can even figure out which way to orient the picture on the box.

I am not being facetious.

Maybe Kayla has just had a lot of practice. She has spent three of our last 11 week long cottage vacations doing puzzles as she recovered from major knee surgery (as good as she is at puzzles, she’s not exactly awesome at keeping her own ligaments from tearing). Maybe it’s a gift from God or something. (Drop Dead Gorgeous reference… anyone?) I don’t know. But she’s real good.

At the moment, I feel like I’m staring at a complicated and beautiful puzzle and all that I have left is one particularly challenging bush or patch of sky or something. Once I get a couple pieces in place, the whole dang thing is going to fall together, but I can’t figure out where to start and I am le frustrated! (The “le” is intentional– I’m pretending that the word frustrated is French.)

Here’s what’s up:

In my job (like my real J-O-B) I work as a scientific research writer, which basically means that I help clinicians and scientists to write grants and manuscripts (and yes, sometimes even eulogies and other speeches and such) about whatever scientific endeavor they favor at the moment. I’ve worked on tons of different things. It’s awesome, really, because as much as I dig STDs, 6 years of nothing but gonorrhea and chlamydia got to be a little bit much. I’m not that into it. In my current job, I get to learn about new and interesting things all the time– oncology, genetics, bioinformatics, cerebral palsy, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic kidney disease, pancreas divisum, diabetes, neuroprostheses, patient navigation, and the list goes on. It’s awesome… like being in school minus the grades plus a real salary. Life is good.

Because I really love science and because nerdiness is my life, not just my job, I get quite invested in the things I do. And it’s all that much easier to get sucked in when I work with really passionate investigators… and so many of these investigators, just wow. These clinicians see a problem in their practice and come to us to either study the problem or solve the problem, and it’s inspiring. I have three projects swirling around in the back of my mind all the time right now. And there’s something about them that’s similar, they are related, they are somehow the answer to one another’s problems, but I can’t figure it out. That’s my puzzle. And it’s becoming my obsession. How can I make these things work together for the good of patients? I won’t know until I can fill in the sky!

Not long ago, I worked with a pediatric nephrologist and learned about Bardet-Biedl syndrome (BBS)– a rare genetic disorder that results in cilia malfunction and many consequent symptoms affecting nearly every organ system in the body. Because the disease is so rare, finding care for these kids, especially coordinated care with specialists who truly understand the disease, has always been a major problem for BBS families. Recognizing that challenge, Dr. Haws started The Treatment Center for BBS at the Marshfield Clinic to provide coordinated, comprehensive care for patients around the country… and even around the world. It is the only BBS clinic in North America and has already served 16 individuals from 14 different families in its 3 clinics to date. I helped Dr. Haws capture survey results from providers and families that participated in the clinics and the comments from the grateful families were overwhelming. I was particularly struck by the woman who blogs here at 71toes.com (polydactyly is a common symptom of BBS and her family of 7 was no exception– how clever!) as she documented her family’s participation in the clinic. So cool!

Coordinated care for kids with special medical needs… it’s a thing that’s done well for many kids at Marshfield Clinic. But what about kids in the foster care system?

I have also spent a lot of time working closely with the medical director of the Marshfield Child Advocacy Center. She is totally committed to creating a Foster Care Medical Home (FCMH) for kids in the foster care system in Central Wisconsin. Medical homes are a really effective and interesting way to make sure that healthcare needs are met in a timely, consistent, and patient-centered manner and it’s something Marshfield Clinic has really embraced in recent years resulting in huge cost savings as well as huge reductions in the need for emergency care and hospital readmissions. We don’t have one for kids in the foster care system, though, and they likely really need it. At the moment, I’m working with Dr. Iniguez to complete an American Academy of Pediatrics planning grant for the FCMH and we just completed our third of four focus groups with foster care providers and past participants. Holy… wow! These families. I mean, I was into it before, I thought it was a great idea… now? I’m smitten! I want this to succeed, to help these families, so very, very badly! I am committed. But how? Where do we find the funding? Whose going to coordinate the care? Can it be like the BBS clinic?

And finally, behavioral health. I told you about my big fat $1.5 million HRSA grant? The one that kept me from blogging for over a week, right? What I didn’t tell you was this: due to a “misinterpretation” of the guidelines, the grant was triaged without being reviewed. WTF, right? I know, I’m furious, but trying to be cool about it… because the program is just way too important to let die now. Yes, it was a big mistake. No, I was not at fault (thank goodness, right?!). But dang, do I ever feel responsible… disappointed… dejected even. It was unpleasant news for everyone involved. And now we’re looking for another way. Another way to bring behavioral health services to patients in the primary care setting who desperately need them, but cannot get them due to the provider shortages we face in our area. How does this fit in? Well, you know who else desperately needs behavioral health services but can’t get them? Kids in the foster care system. These kids benefit tremendously from the notion of trauma-informed care… care that keeps in mind, always, that these kids have been through a really stressful, really awful situation and that those traumas subconsciously inform their every single action.

So, in conclusion, I feel like there’s something there… an invisible thread weaving its way through these projects and constantly tickling the back of my mind. It alerts me to the fact that there’s something in common, some answer that I’m overlooking, some person who needs to be contacted or informed or something. I just can’t find what that something is at the moment. I am missing a vital piece of the puzzle– I’ve got to find my special purpose! (The Jerk, yes?)


Two winters ago, my husband’s grandfather set up a card table in the living room and worked on a puzzle all winter to keep himself occupied while it was so cold. He did a bigillion piece puzzle or something and it had a lot of sky in it. Lots and lots of plain, blue pieces spread out on the table. And when he got to the very end? One was missing.

There was one piece of sky that was blank.

And it stayed blank for a while.

Until one day, Ed, my grandfather-in-law, bent down to put his shoe on and found a puzzle piece in it. It was in his shoe! Right there! All along! He snapped it in and the puzzle was complete.

I’ll find the piece. I’ll make the connection. We’ll make the foster kids a medical home and extend behavioral services to the population that needs it.

Where are my shoes?

Better yet… where is my sister-in-law???