In this week's podcast, two chemists try to balance their love and their science, and a mother must choose her newborn daughter's surgeon.
Part 1: Heather Abbott-Lyon falls in love with another physical chemist, but can they solve the two-body problem?
Heather Abbott-Lyon is a physical chemist who teaches and performs research with undergraduate and masters students at Kennesaw State University. She embraces active learning pedagogies in the classroom and in her laboratory, where students obtain hands-on research experience studying the surface reactivity of meteoritic minerals and industrial catalysts. Her commitment to developing the next generation of scientists includes coordinating the American Chemical Society’s Chemistry Olympiad program for high school students in northwest Georgia and co-advising the KSU chapter of the national chemistry honors society Phi Lambda Upsilon. Dr. Abbott-Lyon lives in East Atlanta, where she and her husband love to help their young kids discover the world around them.
Part 2: Tracey Segarra must choose a surgeon when her baby is born with a dangerous heart problem.
Tracey Segarra is busy. She discovered storytelling later in life but has since embraced it with the fervor of an evangelist, performing in shows around the region and hosting her own show on Long Island, "Now You're Talking!" She is a 3-time Moth StorySLAM winner and a GrandSLAM champion. She had appeared live on the Risk! show and was featured on their podcast. All her storytelling adventures can be found at traceysegarra.com.
Part 1: Heather Abbott-Lyon
So I met John fifteen years ago at a recruitment weekend for the Chemistry Department at Ohio State University. There were probably sixty to seventy students who were there, prospective students for the grad program. Throughout the morning, I kept passing John in the hallways. We were meeting with all the same faculty. Then, in the afternoon, they split us up by subdivision so that we could meet with current graduate students at Ohio State and find out what grad school there was really like.
The organic chemists, like half of them, went off in one room and then the handful of us who were interested in physical chemistry, we went off into a different room to talk to the current grad students. During the Q and A, I was really impressed. John seemed to be asking all these questions that I hadn’t even considered. He was savvier than the rest of us.
That night, all the prospective students went out to dinner and we sort of compared notes and I found out that, as it turned out, John had already visited a lot of graduate schools. He was pretty much at the end of his tour and he was leaning toward attending the University of Buffalo.
Ohio State was the first school I had visited, but I was really excited about the following weekend because I was going to the University of Virginia. My sister went there, it was close to my family, and they were offering me a pretty good fellowship so I was excited.
Over the course of the night, we were sort of initially talking about what research we had done as undergrads, what research we were hoping to do in graduate school, what our career goals were, but as the night wore on, we started talking about other stuff: our music interests, the sports teams we cheered for, our families, even religion.
John asked me a ton of questions. He listened and then he challenged me on almost everything I said. But he was respectful. He wasn’t condescending or patronizing, which is something I get a lot as a short, blonde female. He was clearly interested and he was really interesting. I remember thinking if circumstances were different, if he didn’t live in Michigan and I didn’t live in Georgia and we weren’t considering different grad programs, we would probably be friends. Maybe even best friends.
The next morning, all the prospective students were at the airport. We’re saying our goodbyes. John comes up to me and he says, “Well, I'll see you next weekend.” I looked at him quizzically. “What?”
“Yeah, so actually, I got accepted to the University of Virginia and I think I’m gonna check it out.” I was flattered but really skeptical until I saw him Charlottesville the next weekend.
I think John’s dad tells the story best. He says John called him up and he said, “Pa, so I decided I’m gonna actually go to UVA next weekend and check it out.”
John’s dad was like, “Okay. Why?”
And John said, “Well, you know I do not believe in love at first sight, but I met a girl.” That feeling was mutual.
The next couple of years in Charlottesville were amazing. Being in a relationship with another physical chemist was great. We got to see each other every day, we took classes together, we studied together. We decided to work in different research groups, but our projects were closely enough related that we could compare notes. We could talk about our progress, our frustrations in the lab. We could help each other troubleshoot.
After a couple of years, we decided to get married. We came back from our honeymoon and started writing our dissertations and looking for jobs. That’s when the other shoe fell. See, John and I are what academia refers to as a “two-body problem.” We’re in such specialized fields that finding two jobs in the same city is really challenging.
Now, if you ask John and I, we’ll tell you our research is totally different. John is a gas phase spectroscopist. That means he studies chemical reactions that happen in the air. I, on the other hand, am a surface scientist. That means I study chemical reactions that happen on solid surfaces. Now, the fact that we both study small molecules interacting with metals... it’s totally different still.
We had a couple of possibilities. The first option was at Los Alamos National Lab. You may have actually heard of Los Alamos. It was the primary production plant for the Manhattan Project during World War II. That was the U.S.’ nuclear weapons’ program. As you might expect, this national lab has a defense mission and so it’s in a very remote location, the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.
John was being recruited by a group that was really excited about his background in both experiment and theory and they were offering him a special fellowship. There was one surface science group there that I could join. They were studying the world’s only single crystal surface of uranium.
Now, I was not particularly keen on this research project. For one thing, I was in my mid-twenties and, at some point, I was hoping to have children. Working with a radioactive surface didn’t seem like a great idea.
But the other thing is that, over the course of my interview, I was actually pulled aside by several scientists because they wanted to make sure that I understood that while the project I would be working on could be used to help remediate nuclear waste, it could also be used to help develop more effective nuclear weapons and the reality is that I wasn’t going to have control over which way my data was utilized. That was a huge ethical dilemma for me. I actually cried all the way from that job interview to the airport.
It did motivate me to look for other options and so I was super excited when I landed an interview at one of the Max Planck Research Institutes in Germany. These places are incredibly well-funded and they're world renowned for the research that comes out of them. During my interview, the faculty member that I was hoping to work for, he took me on a tour of the lab facilities. And as part of this, he leads me into this seminar room where there are headshots of more than thirty different people lining the walls.
And he says, “All these scientists have worked at our institutes and won a Nobel Prize. We call this the Nobel Room. Obviously, I was pretty excited when they offered me a position.
We managed to negotiate for John to get an interview at the same institute in a different department. Unfortunately, his experience wasn’t as positive. The group that he was going to be working with was shorthanded and they were excited to have him in the lab. But the director of the department told John he didn’t think his research experience was directly relevant. He was very blunt about it. He said, “Look. I’m going to give you a twelve-month contract because my colleague wants to hire your wife.”
So John flew back to Virginia with a bruised ego and we started debating our options.
This point in my marriage was probably the most difficult time we've ever had. We had some really angry debates. John argued that the position at Los Alamos was in the U.S. which we knew, so that was great. The salary was better and it was going to be really good for his career. I argued that if we took the positions in Germany, we could travel around Europe together. And working in a world-class research institute was going to be better for both our careers. They were going to see how good he was. Plus, I didn’t want to be expected to follow my husband.
We had some really bitter debates and in the middle of one of our fights, John turned to me and he just yelled, “You know I’m going with you to Germany!”
Until that moment, I didn’t actually know. We had been seriously debating living on separate continents and separate time zones. That moment, it changed our marriage for me.
Six months later, we arrived in Berlin with nothing but our suitcases and we met with our research advisers. That first day in Germany, we found out that we had both been awarded Alexander von Humboldt Fellowships and that we would be fully funded for the next two years to do research in Germany.
We got to travel all over Europe during that time. It was pretty isolating sometimes to be living in a country where we didn’t speak the language and we weren’t familiar with the culture. Actually, I didn’t speak the language. John had taken four years of German in high school and a couple of years in college. He taught me how to count to ten and say please and thank you, bitte and danke, before we left. Then, when we got to Germany, he spent hours with me once I started my German language classes helping me practice speaking German. He was my tandem partner.
Because it was kind of isolating to live in that country, it was actually really intimate for us. It kind of brought us closer together and it was right at the beginning of our marriage. I wouldn’t trade that time in Germany for anything. Which is why, two years later, I followed him to Atlanta when he got a tenure track position at Clayton State. I took a second postdoc at Georgia Tech and then a couple of years later I went on the job market. I had multiple offers, but one of them was a tenure track position at Kennesaw State, which seemed too good to be true.
We did it! We found a solution to the two-body problem.
In September, we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. Now, John and I may be the only couple that has ever debated the optimal design of a time-of-flight mass spectrometer over dinner, but I’m okay with that. I am passionate about the science that I do and I’m so thrilled that I get to share it with the man that I love. And now that we found a solution to our academic two-body problem, we’re working on another two-body problem. Three-year-old twins Max and Izzy.
Part 2: Tracey Segarra
Okay. Let’s just get this out of the way. I’m not a scientist. In fact, my story is all about how I know nothing about science. I’m totally uncomfortable with math. STEM, I don't even know what STEM stands for.
There are left-brain and right-brain people. I still don’t know which one I am, but I’m the one that knows Broadway show tunes and that can write essays.
I’m especially mystified by the human body. Like I see skin, I have no idea what’s underneath or where anything is. Just I trust in doctors and the medical profession that they know what they're doing. For most of my life, this was not a problem because I was fairly healthy. But then, in my mid-thirties, I suffered two miscarriages but then I became pregnant with twins. I’m at the advanced maternal age of thirty-six so I am watched like a hawk throughout my entire pregnancy.
You know, I grew up in the seventies, where doctors were like demigods. Like Marcus Welby M.D. and General Hospital. Doctors were smarter than me and my whole attitude was I just have to listen to them, they know what they're saying and don’t waste their precious time.
I’m lucky because I have a wonderful obstetrician, but then I have a difficult pregnancy and I land in the hospital at thirty-two weeks with high blood pressure and I’m having contractions. They're able to stop them, but they say, “That’s it. You're in the hospital for the duration of this pregnancy.”
So I sit there and I listen to everybody and everything’s fine. Finally, it’s time for my babies to be born. And it has to be a C-section because Baby B has her foot squarely under Baby A’s head, kind of blocking the runway, so it has to be a C-section. But it’s a planned C-section.
Finally, the day arrives. As they're rolling me into the operating room, I’m suddenly seized with this terrible fear that something horrible is going to happen to my babies. So I get into this hospital room and everybody is wearing masks and there's all these people I don't know. I’m suddenly seized with this thought. I think, This is elective surgery. So I turn to my doctor and I say, “Can we elect to do this another day?”
He looks at me and he just shakes his head and he laughs this big booming laugh. And he says, “No, Tracey. It is time to meet your babies. Nothing is going to go wrong.” He's this big doctor.
So I trust him and I’m just like, “All right. Nothing is gonna go wrong.” So the surgery begins.
You know, I’m awake for this entire time. I’m drugged, but I’m not out of it because it’s a planned C-section. So my husband is sitting by my head and we’re just having this chitchat while there's this tent and they're doing whatever they're doing there to get my babies out.
And what seems like three hours, but is probably only about forty minutes, finally, I hear my babies, Lily and Jessica, dueling banjo cries from opposite sides of the room. It’s like du-du-du-du-du-du-waah. You know? When I hear those strong, healthy cries, I think, Ah, finally I can just relax and I can get on with just being a mother.
But the next morning they do all these routine tests on newborns, and they're preemies. Lily’s only four pounds, Jessica is only five pounds. So they do all these tests and they find a murmur in Lily’s heart. They do further tests and they discover that she has a very serious congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot. If any of you listened to Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue a couple of weeks ago, that’s what his son was born with.
Remember, I don't understand medicine. This does not compute. And this cardiologist at the hospital, who I've never met before, is telling me what’s wrong with my baby and he's describing it and it’s like Charlie Brown. It’s like, “Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.” I don't know what he's saying. I just know he said something about there's four things wrong with her heart. That’s tetralogy. And there's blood flowing where it’s not supposed to. And there's areas that need to be patched. It’s just all a blur and I’m just horrified when he's telling me what’s wrong with my baby.
Then I’m even more terrified when he starts describing the open-heart surgery she's going to need in the next couple of months in order to survive. And then I’m angry at God, mostly, for giving me this broken baby.
You know, this cardiologist, this is the first time where I’m angry at a doctor because he's like smiling. This guy is telling me all about the history of tetralogy of Fallot, how it was discovered by this French physician Dr. Fallot in 1888, and how up until fifty years ago there was no way to do anything about it, and isn’t that fascinating.
And I’m a new mother, traumatized, you know -- there's something terribly wrong with my baby. No, it’s not fascinating. It’s horrifying. And he's just going on and on, but whatever.
So eventually, within two weeks, we’re able to take the babies home and the next couple of weeks are spent learning how to take care of infant twins, which is no easy task, I'll tell you. And watching Lily closely to make sure that she doesn’t turn blue, which would mean that her blood oxygen levels are getting low. To this day, I still don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s not good. I know that’s not good and we would have to rush her to the hospital.
So then the next test is interviewing heart surgeons. Well, I can’t think of anybody less qualified to interview world-class heart surgeons than me. My only experience with anything even closely related to this is dissecting a frog in the seventh grade and that frog was dead, you know. So like who am I to ask these doctors anything?
The first surgeon we meet wants to use Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests, to patch the holes in Lily’s heart. And then the next surgeon we meet says, “Oh, there's no reason to do the surgery so soon. You can wait ‘til she's a year old. She had kind of a mild case of tetralogy of Fallot and she’ll be fine. Wait until she's stronger, her heart is stronger and then we can do the surgery.”
They're all saying different things. I just want to scream like, “Would somebody else please make this decision for me because I don't know what to do?” But I know deep in my heart, I’m a mother now and I've got this instinct that I have to get over my fear and my ignorance and I have to choose the right surgeon for my baby.
Well, the next surgeon we meet is Dr. Q. Dr. Q has the bedside manner of Vladimir Putin, on a good day. On a good day. I'll give him that. And we haven't spent more than five minutes in his office when it is obvious to me that he just wants us out of there. We are definitely wasting his precious time.
When we’re interviewing all of these surgeons, like I said, I don't know what to ask them, but the one thing I can think of to ask them, the only thing I can think to ask them is, “How many of your babies don’t die?” In the end, we choose Dr. Q because he may be rude and bum-rushed us out of his office, but he's got the best stats. He's done more of these operations than these other surgeons and more of his babies live.
When the day for Lily’s surgery arrives, she is five months old. She weighs ten pounds and her heart is roughly the size of a walnut. And I think to myself, How? How can you operate on a heart that small?
But I have to put the thought out of my mind because otherwise I would not be able to hand over my child to this doctor who I barely know and don’t much like. But I do because that’s what we have to do, then we wait.
The surgery takes a few hours and finally we see her wheeled into the ICU and Dr. Q is there and he tells us that everything went exactly the way it was supposed to.
But during the night there are complications. Lily’s lungs fill with fluid and they have to intubate her and sedate her until her lungs can clear, and so we sit vigil by her bedside. Every day we ask them, “Can you take the tube out?” “Can you wake up our baby?” And every day they say, no. It’s just a waiting game and each day that she's intubated and her lungs are filled with fluid, she's getting swollen and she looks less and less like my baby, like I barely recognize her.
But finally, things start to turn around. And during all this time, Dr. Q came once to check on her and we never saw him again. It’s like they hand it off to the ICU team. Finally, after five days, they can wake her up and I can hold my baby again. Then, nine days later, we’re able to take her home. I am so scared when we take her home. She's obviously still in pain. She's got this like Frankenstein scar running the length of her chest and so I watch her closely. After about a week, one morning I go to pick her up from her crib and she turns to me and she gives me this crooked little Lily smile. It’s the first time she smiled since the surgery. It’s only then that I know in my heart that she's going to be okay.
Thirteen years later, we get invited to a gala honoring Dr. Q, and so we go. At one point during the evening, Lily and I seek out Dr. Q so that she can meet the surgeon who had fixed her heart and I’m a little worried about this. I don't know how he's going to react. But we see him. We say hello and Lily takes a picture with him and a hospital photographer captures the moment.
I remember thinking to myself all those years ago how angry I was at all these surgeons with all their skills. They had no people skills and that they were all so rude and arrogant in telling us what to do and how difficult it was for us. And I remember thinking at the time, they're really not in this to help these people or, if they are, it’s mostly because it’s a challenge for them. So I really judged them.
But a few weeks after this gala, I come across this article in New York Magazine and it’s a profile of Dr. Q. He's a very famous surgeon. So of course I read it. It’s a really long article and it’s very interesting, but one paragraph in that whole essay really jumps out at me. In that paragraph, Dr. Q talks about how, in order to do what he does every day, he needs to keep a certain distance from the families.
After I read this, I go back and I look at the picture of Lily and Dr. Q. In the photo, Lily, my Lily, with her curly long hair is grinning ear to ear and Dr. Q is stoic as usual, not even smiling. But when I look closer, I see that his arm is tightly gripped around her shoulder and you can see that one of her curls it tightly wound around his finger.
I think to myself, you know, maybe we’re not so different, Dr. Q and I. When I’m writing something, I’m a writer, I block out everything. I block out my husband, my kids, so I can focus. So now when I look at that photo I focus in on Dr. Q’s hands. These are hands that reached into my broken baby’s walnut-sized heart and returned it to me whole. And now, I think, thirteen years later, they're wrapped around my baby in what maybe, just possibly, is a hug.