When I worked in the cube farm, there were very few bright spots in my daily work life. The room was always cold. My cubicles were never situated so I could see the windows. For months we listened to jackhammers as they remodeled the rooms above and next to us. But the people were wonderful – intelligent, witty, caring. They were public radio listeners who understood my “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” references and engaged in morning conversations about “Morning Edition” stories we all listened to driving to work. I made many friends there and they helped make the experience tolerable.
Ellen was one of the first people to introduce herself to me. She was a trainer on the Cultural Competency Training Team and recognized a fellow teacher in me. It didn’t take long before I was a member of the team, learning the curriculum and offering my own insights as a person with a disability. My teammates were committed to reducing health disparities in minority groups and we traveled across New York helping public health workers and community organizations take the first steps on the path to greater acceptance of those often perceived as “different.” We asked questions – often difficult – and challenged ourselves to explore our own cultural biases.
Two years later, the funding for my job was cut. I applied for another job within the cube farm and was fortunate enough to be offered the chance to work directly with Ellen – she was my new boss. Together we designed, implemented and evaluated training related to public health breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening. We continued to co-train around New York on the Cultural Competency Team. We successfully integrated online learning elements into our training plans even though we were “get people together in a room” trainers at heart.
Working with Ellen I developed skills related to our specific job functions. I learned technical facts about cancer screening. I can explain the science behind cervical cancer screening and why most women don’t need an annual Pap test. I can teach anyone how to complete a take-home fecal occult blood test for colorectal cancer, and demonstrate proper technique using Play-Doh and a potty chair. Really – don’t you wish you got to attend some of our trainings?!
Employees with disabilities sometimes worry about needing to ask for reasonable accommodations. Ellen supported me when my reasonable accommodation requests were challenged by higher management, even if it meant she took the heat. When you rely on others to be your arms and legs, your own ability to work is dependent on staff showing up when they are supposed to. The mother of a daughter with a disability, Ellen “got it” and was a supportive and encouraging boss. She knew I would get the job done even if I had to come in late because a Personal Assistant was sick or tardy. She understood my fluctuating physical abilities and respected my ability to listen to my own body. I had the flexibility to work like crazy on my “good days” and tackle less taxing projects on my “bad energy days.” She never broke the rules, but treated me as a professional and trusted I was competent to deliver good quality work.
After our office was reconfigured, we shared a cubicle wall. I listen to music while I’m working and often hum along without realizing I’m doing it. More than one co-worker has commented on it in the past. Ellen would merely just make a comment about the genre of the day. “Oh – Broadway today?” or “It’s about time you started listening to Christmas music!” She knew when I got my yogurt out of the fridge I’d be opening my Cheez-Its box next. (Don’t ask why I eat that combination – I don’t have a good answer). She shared her chocolate stash and would bring me homemade soup.
It didn’t take long for Ellen to become a kind, compassionate and exceptionally empathetic friend. Ellen was my boss while my family was experiencing our own cancer journey with my sister Mary Jane and her husband. At the same time, Ellen’s father was navigating his own cancer diagnosis and treatment. We leaned on each other as we struggled to be strong for our respective families. Ellen was always first to stop working and say, “Come on – we need to get out of here for a walk.” We would spend our lunch break walking through the neighborhoods near our office, discussing the reality of helping loved ones facing terminal diagnosis. When my sister passed away, Ellen showed up at my house on New Year’s Eve with two quiches because she knew I would be worried about feeding the friends who would be staying with me for the funeral.
Although we no longer work together, we still visit frequently by phone and email and we get together every other month or so. I know she is a reliable listener whenever I need to gauge my own reaction to a question or problem. She encourages me to pursue my writing dreams and congratulates me for milestones along the way. More than once, Ellen has dropped everything to come help me get out of bed or use the toilet when a Personal Assistant has not shown and I can’t find a replacement. I can tell you – a friend who is willing to do that is a keeper!
Thank you Ellen, for always being available for a chat, for a visit, for help or for fun. I appreciate you. Our friendship is the best thing to come from the office building known as Riverview – which has no view of a river.