In our last episode of 2018, we’re presenting two stories about facing challenges head-on and seizing the day.
Part 1: On the eve of his first big talk at a major international conference, ecologist Kevin Burgio discovers there’s something seriously wrong with the clothes he’d planned to wear.
Kevin R. Burgio is a US Air Force veteran, first-generation college student, and currently a postdoctoral researcher in Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. He is collaborating with researchers from a variety of disciplines to create effective science communication training. When not working on science communication, his research focuses on using an integrative approach to understanding the ecology, biogeography, and extinction of parrot communities. His ultimate goal is to bridge the divide between ecological theory and on-the-ground conservation in order to make the best possible decisions not just for now, but for the future as well. He also advocates for inclusiveness in science and you can follow him on Twitter @KRBurgio.
Part 2: While working as a research assistant on a traumatic brain injury study, Devine Joyce struggles with feelings of depression, but an experience with a patient changes her outlook.
Devine Joyce is fascinated by all things related to the brain, not unlike zombies. She received her BSc in Biology at the University of British Columbia. She aspires to guide people through their journey of self-discovery, self-love, and to become better communicators. She loves to spend her free time finding the best places to get tacos and enjoys being upside down (ask her what this means).
Part 1: Kevin Burgio
It’s midnight. It’s the night before I’m giving a big talk in a major international conference. I’m crashing at my friend’s Airbnb. I’ve been traveling all day. I’m just exhausted and I just want to go to bed so I unzip my suitcase and pull out my pillow. I reach in to grab my pajamas and I feel something cold and wet. Why are my clothes cold and wet?
In that moment I just catch this whiff, this aroma coming from my clothes and I knew what it was in an instant. For those of you who have cats in the crowd you know where I’m going with this. That’s right. My cat snuck into my suitcase the night before and pissed all over my clothes.
And this is my big debut. This is the first time I’m getting up in front of a bunch of important scientists to talk about my dissertation research which is on the global conservation of parrots.
So I look down at my suitcase full of cat-piss clothes, I look down at the shirt that I’m wearing and it’s caked with dry sweat, because it’s Washington, DC, which is a literal swamp, and it’s August, and I walked up a hill 20 minutes from the train station to the hotel lugging my suitcase.
To just make my anxiety even higher at this point, I was waiting on hearing back from a job I applied to at Brown University as a postdoc. I just knew I got that job. I killed the interview and I knew this so deep in my bones that I had already created this narrative in my mind. See, I’m a kid from Boston and I grew up on welfare. I actually ate government cheese. If you don’t know what government cheese is, it’s a block of cheese-like substance and it just in big bold letters just says ‘cheese’ on it. That’s it. And I’m only the second person in my family to graduate high school.
So I’m thinking I’m like Good Will Hunting. In fact, I am the real-life Good Will Hunting, this poor kid from Boston who’s going to make it in the Ivy Leagues. I’m so invested in this narrative, and this is really embarrassing to admit into a roomful of people I don't know, well, I know some of you. Anyway, I was planning on getting the Brown University crest tattooed on my back. That’s how important this was and how invested in this narrative I was.
So I look around the Airbnb to see what I can do. There's a washing machine. Great. Problem solved. I put all the clothes in the washing machine. The goddamn thing is broken. And it’s midnight. I can’t call anybody to come fix it.
So I look around more and I see there's a sink and there's dish soap. All right. So I wash the shirt with the dish soap, I wring it out, hang it up and go to bed because I’m just exhausted. I wake up in the morning and smell the shirt and it still smells like cat piss, but not just cat piss, also Dawn now.
So I’m like, “Well, this has got to be my Plan B. I’m just going to go buy a new shirt”.
I Google all the local clothing stores around the hotel and it’s a hipster neighborhood so all they have is vintage clothing stores. Apparently, what that means for men is you have a very limited selection of ‘70s really shiny, polyester, paisley, huge-lapel shirts. At the time, I was finishing my dissertation and I had put on a lot of weight because I was stress eating all the time. I’m not going to tell you how much but it was quite a bit.
So I’m like, “All right. I’m just going to try this shirt on. Anything is better than going up in front of a crowd with a cat-piss shirt.”
I put on the shirt and it’s puckered like this. They're all super tight. I guess in the ‘70s they didn’t really have the dad-bod thing going on. I can’t give a presentation with my skin hanging out. It’s not very professionals. And it’s certainly not acceptable for a golden boy who’s going to make it in the ivies.
So I look down and I’m just resigned at this point. I’m going to go give this talk covered in cat piss. There's nothing else I can do. So I walk back to the hotel, I get to the conference center. It’s about half an hour before I give my talk and I’m standing in the hallway outside of the room that I’m going to give this talk. It’s just a regular generic hotel. Everything is taupe and beige. The rug just has this intricate pattern. If you stare at it too long it gives you a terrible headache. And it’s quiet because everybody is in listening to other people talk about their research.
My phone buzzes so I pick it up. I look at it. It’s an email from the guy from Brown. At this moment I’m like, “This is my Good Will Hunting moment. This is it. Break out the tattoo gun, I’m ready to go.”
So I read the email and I didn’t get the job. At that moment, this narrative I built for myself just crumbles. And this boy, this grubby boy from Boston who ate government cheese, who played street hockey with a crushed beer can instead of a puck, who picked up used heroin needles on his fourth-grade playground, that boy was standing there in that shirt with all the cat piss on it. And all the things that I ever told myself about how I didn’t belong in school doing what I’m doing and how I was an impostor just waiting for everybody to figure it out, it all wells up inside me. I am the impostor in that moment and I don't belong here.
But I’m like, “I need to calm down. I need to calm down.” So I start doing a breathing exercise. I breathe in and I smell cat piss and Dawn, which doesn’t do anything for my anxiety just to be perfectly clear about that. But there's 15 minutes left before I have to give my talk.
The doors open up, people come in and leave, get ready for the person who’s talking right before me. Robotically I just walk into the room. I sit as far away as everybody as I can. I’m sitting there and there's sweat beading up on my skin and I’m stuck in my chair with indecision.
I can just leave. I can walk out. Nobody knows what I look like. I can just leave and they'll call my name and nobody will answer and they'll just move on. Is that better or worse than having everybody listen to this garbage research that I did? Because it’s got to be garbage.
But the time just disappears and suddenly the person ahead of me is done. I didn’t hear a single word they said. I see my title slide up on the presentation screen and the moderator gets up and she calls my name. I don't know what else to do so I stand up and I walk to the front of the stage.
I turn around and at that moment I’m standing there, and I’m standing here, and I think, “Well, maybe because I’m standing here I belong here.”
So I open my mouth and I say, “Thanks, everybody, for coming out. My name is Kevin Burgio and now let’s talk about parrots.”
Part 2: Devine Joyce
I worked as a research assistant on a traumatic brain injury study where we collected data from patients who sustained a head injury. So patients would come in to the hospital to the emergency department for a variety of things, like fishbone stuck in throat or shortness of breath or even toe fractures. They would even come for bigger traumas, like car accidents, and my job was to enroll patients who sustained a head injury, order their blood to be drawn and facilitate neurocognitive assessments.
The first couple of months I really pushed myself to get these enrollments. I pushed myself hard. I wanted to show that I was capable and that I was good at my job. However, at the same time, I was becoming increasingly aware of how unhappy I was with myself. Deeply unhappy with who I was, what I looked like and where I was heading in life.
So at work I was outgoing. I was enrolling patients. But outside of work I really didn’t find any happiness from simple things in life, like sipping on a nice warm coffee or walks around the park or listening and dancing to my reggaeton music. Oftentimes when I would have dinner with my friends, I would sit down and completely zone out and have to be brought back to the conversation by my friends furiously waving at my face.
So I started retreating from my friends and family. I would come home after work every day, bury myself underneath a pile of blankets and just scroll through my social media, mindlessly scrolling, which would make me feel even worse. I started bingeing unhealthy food. I wasn’t exercising, I wasn’t working out. And I think it was a combination of the stress of having a new job, of transitioning into this new job and being so unhappy with how I looked as well as my unhealthy lifestyle that overall led to the dissatisfaction in my life.
Three months into the job there was this long week of not having enrolled a single patient into our study so I was taking it quite hard. There was a long week of not enrolling anybody simply because it was a slow week in the ER, which was obviously a good thing. Less people were hurting themselves. Less people were getting into accidents. But this added an extra pressure onto myself because I wanted to enroll patients that were eligible.
That Saturday morning I was working by myself and an ICU patient comes into the hospital. He was eligible for our study and I read his chart. This patient was a young male in his early 20s. He had been on a building watching the sunrise when he fell off the building and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury with multiple fractures and multiple brain bleeds. He was sent to the ER and was quickly moved to the ICU for better monitoring.
He was unconscious so I knew I had to talk to the family in order to get consent for a blood draw, because although I wouldn’t be able to do any of the assessments with them, his blood would still be invaluable to our study. But I couldn’t bring myself to approach this patient’s family because I was scared and I was terrified and I just couldn’t bear to add on to the burdens that they had already.
So I waited for my co-worker to come, because there's safety in numbers, and we went up to his room together. The curtain to his room was partly drawn. There was a sign that said ‘Respect this Space’ laminated onto the curtain. At this point, I knew that the patient was in comfort care and the prognosis wasn’t looking so good.
I don't remember what he looked like. I don't remember his hair color. I don't remember the shape of his eyes, his nose, his mouth. I can’t remember any of that. But I do remember the tube coming out of his mouth that allowed him to breathe and I remember more tubes and IVs snaking across his body, a monitor in the corner beep-beep beeping. His head was bandaged and he was wearing a collar for stability.
We met his family that was surrounding his bed. I can tell you it was one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever had to experience. We found out that this patient was brain dead and was getting prepared for organ donation. I'll never forget the stifling sadness that surrounded that room. It was so thick. I felt like I was suffocating and I couldn’t breathe.
And so I stood there scared, clutching at my blood kit and clutching at my clipboard, shaking while my co-worker was the one who was able to consent for a blood draw. Afterwards, we went down to our office, collapsed in our chairs and just cried.
Now, I have dealt with death before with my uncle and my grandpa but their deaths didn’t affect me as much as this one did. I'd always associated death with grief and sadness sorrow, but there's something more powerful about this. That was unconditional love that was coming from this patient’s family, love that looked like your dad writing you a poem or love that looked like someone rolling in a TV so you could experience hockey one last time with your sister. And love that looked like your son’s heart, kidneys, liver giving life to other people. I was completely thrown off by this experience for an entire month. My head space was completely jumbled and I just couldn’t think properly. I was grieving for someone I didn’t even know.
My short time with this family was enough to propel my journey for self love and self discovery because this patient was so young and I could see myself in him. He had his entire life ahead of him until one day he didn’t. It really made me think about how fleeting life is and how I didn’t want to continue living the rest of my life unhappy with myself.
So I started bettering myself. I'd come home every day after work, bury myself underneath a pile of blankets and watch TED talks, TED talks on how to love yourself, how to forgive yourself, how to be happy, the person you should really be marrying, and that person is you. I would oftentimes sit in my bed watching these TED talks. I'd watch these TED talks and I'd just start tearing up because some of the things that they were saying were really hitting home.
I'd read self-help books, like You Are Here where the main themes were focusing on the present moment and enjoying who you're with and the people that you're with. And I would write in my journals until ink ran out, wake up every morning, look myself in the mirror and give myself a pep talk and say, “You got this today.”
And I started learning more about what was important for me, my needs and my values, and one of my needs that was actually really important to me was belonging. I realized I could fulfill this by doing a bunch of different things, like volunteering, trying out new dance classes. And in this process of learning about myself, I started to love myself and I started to live again. One day I woke up, went outside, it was morning time 6:00 a.m., and I watched the sunrise, a soft pink purple hue painted across the sky. I smiled for the first time in a long time because I was finally happy. Thank you.