Processing… (alternately titled “A mini autobiography leading up to my current existential crisis”)

Gosh it’s easy to get knocked off track. Today is Friday, and here in Texas, it’s the first normal feeling day I have personally had all week thanks to the winter weather we had starting last weekend. That’s actually not true – the winter weather had very little to do with the absolute standstill we have all been at this week. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

I lost most of last week as well due to the lingering immune response that my body had to the second Covid vaccine that I received the weekend before. It was rough, but well worth the resistance to an infection that has knocked the entire world on our collective behinds. But I don’t really want to talk about that either.

What I want to drone on about today is calling. More specifically, my calling. What is it? How do I find it? What do I do about it when I do find it? Can I borrow yours until I do find mine? “Oh great,” you’re thinking, “one of those posts where she waxes all what-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing-with-my-life.” Well, you’re right, so either suck it up and buckle in, or move along.

So here’s the thing: growing up, I had this ambition to become a teacher. Everybody I talked to (literally tens of people) knew it. I spent weeks during the summer at an aunt’s house that was a teacher, and my favorite thing to do was go through her classroom decorations and decorate my pretend classroom where I taught my obedient class full of dolls and stuffed animals. It was all I ever wanted to do.

I graduated high school a year early with a 2-week-old son who had undergone a heart operation less than 24 hours after birth, and my priorities shifted pretty drastically (I found they would do this several more times). I spent the summer between high school graduation and starting college in a NICU learning how to care for a medically fragile infant, and made the decision to pursue nursing. I was basically getting on the job training minus the pay, how hard could it be? So when I started taking community college courses, I loaded up on prerequisites for the nursing program. What I quickly found was that I hated it. Anatomy and Physiology was the first class I ever dropped because I just couldn’t memorize all those bones (this was probably the first two weeks of the curriculum). The truth is that I could memorize all those bones – I just didn’t want to. Nursing is a noble profession, and I appreciate all the nurses out there, but it was not for me. So I cut my losses and graduated community college with a Certificate of Proficiency in Office Technology. I was basically certified to be a secretary (a profession that doesn’t actually need a certificate).

Fast forward a few years of employment as – you guessed it – a secretary, and I decided if I was going to advance my situation in life, I should probably get a real degree. I worked at a university at the time anyway; surely I could just take a few classes around my work schedule. So I did. I declared a Computer Science major, and off I went. The first couple of semesters were all about taking care of basics, but since I had tested out of both the required English classes as well as Psychology, I had some room in my schedule to take an early class in programming so when I began my degree work, I wouldn’t be so behind. I quickly learned that while I was definitely a technology savvy person, Computer Science was not going to be a field in which I was going to find any kind of fulfillment. C++ was every bit as boring to me as the bones of the face had been a few years prior. Introduction to Programming was the second class I ever dropped.

In the five years that followed, I tried out Journalism and Marketing as majors before finally declaring Public Relations as the one and started focusing on just getting the degree and getting out. It wasn’t just that I had screwed around and taken classes long enough that I needed to just be finished (though the community college that I had previously attended did send me an Associate’s Degree simply due to college hour accumulation), the coursework in the Public Relations program was actually interesting to me. A lot of it was centered around nonprofit work, which I found incredibly rewarding, and I felt like I had found my calling – to help people. Somehow.

Some time after I graduated with my degree in Public Relations (minor in English), I took a job with a nonprofit organization as their Youth Program Director. I was responsible for presenting existing programs to kids as well as developing new programs. I loved it. I loved connecting with the kids and reaching out to the community. It provided a lot of different experiences with different audiences, which was nice since I’m the type of person to burn out pretty easily when things get mundane. After about a year, the organization restructured a little and the scope of my position changed, and I left the organization with a lot of valuable insight into myself and a renewed desire to become a teacher.

And so I did. The following school year, I took a job as a special education classroom aide and started a program to work toward becoming certified to teach. Because I was already plugged into a school system, I was able to begin student teaching as soon as I finished the coursework (which also didn’t take long), and in just over 6 months, I received my elementary teaching certificate as well as an ESL and a Gifted and Talented supplemental certification.

Over the course of the 6 years that followed, I had what I always thought was my “dream job,” but I struggled to feel what I thought I was going to feel. I’m not really sure how to articulate the conflict between what I expected and what I actually experienced, but I can say that I never really felt successful as a teacher. I loved my students, and a lot of them seemed to genuinely love me back; connecting with them never really seemed to be the issue, but I never really felt like I was successful in actually delivering the content. My last year in the classroom, I was assigned to teach 4th grade Writing, and I was pumped. I love to write, and I was excited to pass that love on to reluctant writers and to encourage those that already loved it as well. The reality was that kids at that age have very little actual experience in writing anything organized because until that age, focus is put on other subjects, so teaching writing turned out to be less encouraging kids to become better writers and to love writing, and more teaching them the rules of grammar and writing, which we all hate. In the back of my head the whole time was a nagging feeling: You are not fulfilling your calling – this is not where you are meant to serve. So I resigned from my teaching job.

In the months since, I have taken on the mission of finding what it is I am meant to do, who it is I am meant to serve, and in what capacity? Unfortunately, the nagging feeling that lead me to leave teaching hasn’t really offered up any further guidance. The universe has done a good job showing me all the things I am not called to do, but has yet to open my eyes to what I am. When I embarked on this journey to find this calling, I had a list of criteria that I would like for it to include. I want to write (but what?). I want to speak (to whom? About what?). I want to empower and give hope (again – who? And how?). I have read books, listened to speakers, and talked to coaches about finding purpose, and the recurring theme is that your purpose is at the intersection of your skills and expertise, your talents (apparently those are somehow different from skills and expertise), your values, and your passions (again – apparently those two things are different). As easy as that formula sounds, I am no closer to knowing than I was 8 months ago.

So now what?

Where Black History Month and American Heart Month Intersect

With February being Black History Month, the majority of my focus has obviously been on highlighting the accomplishments of Black Americans (this has been going on over at my Facebook page). This will continue throughout the month of February, but February is an important month to me for another reason as well. February is known as American Heart Month, a month aimed at raising awareness to heart health, and as a mother of a child born with congenital heart defects, this is an issue that hits pretty close to home. So while I want to continue to focus on Black History Month, I also want to make sure I am bringing attention to National Heart Health Month as well. I was sure there had to be a number of history making Black cardiologists, which would allow me to highlight both worlds, and a quick Google search introduced me to my new hero: Dr. Vivien T. Thomas.

Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas (From The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions; photo subject to copyright restrictions)

Vivien Thomas was born in 1910 in Louisiana. He graduated high school with honors in 1929, and got a job as a laboratory assistant at Vanderbilt University under the surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock. Blalock tutored Thomas in anatomy and physiology, and began teaching him complex surgical techniques, which Thomas mastered quickly. Despite the complexity and scope of the work Thomas did for Blalock, because of his race, he was classified and paid as a janitor. Thomas did not let that deter him, and he continued to assist Blalock in groundbreaking research in treating Crush syndrome, which occurs as a result of toxic chemicals released when muscles are crushed.

Blalock and Thomas began studying vascular and cardiac surgery, and exploring the concept of opening the heart to operate on it. In 1941, Blalock was offered the Chief of Surgery position at Johns Hopkins University, and he brought Thomas on board with him. In 1943, Blalock was approached by Dr. Helen Taussig about finding a surgical solution for a congenital heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, often referred to as Blue Baby Syndrome. Over the course of the following two years, Thomas experimented on re-creating, and correcting a similar condition in dogs to prove that the congenital condition in a human could be corrected safely. In 1944, Blalock implanted the first successful Blalock-Taussig shunt, with Thomas standing on a step stool behind him, instructing him through the entire procedure. Being a Black man in the 1940s, Thomas was, of course, not only allowed to assist, but also never credited for his work.

Vivien Thomas went on to develop more cardiology surgical techniques and trained many young surgeons and lab technicians, despite not being qualified to perform surgery himself. He was paid so little for his services, that he often made money serving attendees at parties of the very man he worked alongside, Alfred Blalock. Eventually, Blalock went to bat for higher pay for Thomas with the powers that be at Johns Hopkins University, and Thomas became the University’s highest paid technician, as well as the highest paid African-American to hold any position on the University’s payroll. In his more than 15 years at Johns Hopkins as director of Surgical Research Laboratories, Thomas mentored many other young, Black lab technicians, as well as the University’s first Black cardiology resident, Dr. Levi Watkins, who implanted the first successful automatic defibrillator in 1975. In 1976, Tomas was awarded an honorary doctorate degree (though it was not a medical doctorate), and was appointed to the Johns Hopkins faculty as an instructor of surgery. He retired in 1979, and began writing his autobiography, which was published just days after he passed away in 1985 from pancreatic cancer.

Ok, so Vivien Thomas obviously contributed a lot to the world of cardiac surgery, and he did it in a time when institutional racism was the norm. He made life-saving discoveries, and huge advancements in the field, and he did it with absolutely no credit and very little pay. I don’t think anyone would argue his remarkable accomplishments or the quality of his character. Here’s why he grabbed my attention, specifically though: My oldest son was born with the congenital defect Tetralogy of Fallot 24 years ago. His first operation was at less than a day old, when he was fitted with a Blalock-Taussig shunt. Because of the efforts of Vivien Thomas, my son is alive today.

How do I celebrate Black History Month as a white girl?

Full transparency here – Black History Month is one of those things that I’ve always read about and admired quietly. If I’m being honest, there are a lot of things like that. I’ve never really been sure if it’s ok for me to celebrate Black History Month as a white girl. I think I’ve always been concerned that because it’s not my heritage, it’s disrespectful for me to take part in it – like I’m afraid to do it wrong. What I have decided in the last couple years as I have spent more and more time trying to educate myself on things outside of my comfort zone is that I would rather get it wrong and learn from my mistakes than remain in my own ignorance.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m reading books and articles by Black authors, I’m following Black social media accounts, I’m seeking out how to better support Black owned businesses, and basically learning as much as I can about Black history, culture, and community. I’m sharing a resource every day on my social media accounts just in case someone actually follows me and might want to learn along with me.

Here’s what I’m not doing. I’m not asking Black people to educate me and answer questions I can find the answers to using my own resources. They are not my Google and it is not their job to rescue me from the whitewashed history I have experienced growing up. If I am called out for getting something wrong (as is likely), I will not take it as a personal attack, and instead use it as an opportunity to further learn.

I am also committing to continuing my education beyond February 28, because Black culture and all the things we have to learn from it can’t be fit into one month. I welcome input, constructive criticism, and productive conversation. If you’re white, I invite you to follow along and learn with me (my social media accounts are linked to this page). If you’re Black, I invite you to follow along in whatever way you feel led.