Speak up for yourself!

Greg Sibbel

Greg Sibbel

What one piece of knowledge can I share from the tragedy that has me in tears today, the untimely death of Greg Sibbel, third year Wash U grad student, from Ewings Cancer? I could tell you what a great TA he was, how readily he helped everyone, how he embraced learning well outside of his specialty on the medical campus to come over and help with Behavioral Ecology. I could tell you that he got his paper in Cell before he died. I could tell you about his Iowa farm background. I could tell you he showed me the secret place on a high floor in the med campus building where I could park my bike.

But others knew him so much better and more deeply than I did, that it almost seems unfair to claim too much of the grieving. But grief is not a scarce resource. There is plenty to go around. The knowledge I would like to share with you came from glimmers of his swelling cancer from last fall, well before its February 2013 diagnosis. This came from the only times I really saw Greg, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:30 to 4:00 in the afternoon during Behavioral Ecology. I lectured a little, but mostly we either worked on projects or watched and interpreted videos of behavior, so there was time to talk together. Greg was in charge of our Wikipedia page. This meant we had a lot to talk about.

It probably only happened a few times, but I remember Greg told me he was in pain. He missed some classes because of medical appointments. He was told it was muscular and he was prescribed physical therapy. Remember, I get this only from him at the time, but I remember it particularly because I always encouraged him to just bike the three miles from the med campus and he had to stop. Only when I ran into him later after the cancer was diagnosed did I get an idea of how bad it was, how completely horrible was the pain. He must have endured it for months as the Wash U health service just told him to keep up with the physical therapy.

I suppose it isn’t very nice of me to wish ill of that cocky, incompetent so-called medical person that sent Greg to physical therapy with nary a visualization. But right now I despise that person and am terrified about the medical care our precious grad students are getting. An early diagnosis might have made all the difference, and the pain was there calling for one for months at least.

So, what advice can I give from this tragic death? It is that only you know what is going on with you and you must talk out. Do not accept pain without the most thorough of all inspections. It may be awkward and embarrassing to insist on proper care, but you must do it. It may make you feel terrible to defer trust and have to insist.

Don’t think I’m blaming Greg for not insisting. I can only wonder if any of the people the grad students see are caring and smart enough to understand they need a complete change in how they do things. I could go on and this is only partly venting because my own students have had their challenges at that place.

Actually standing up for yourself and talking may be most useful advice in situations outside the medical one. I often get told by people that they serve on too many committees, that some don’t “count.” To that I ask, who is counting? You must be the one to manage your own life, to insist you are doing as much of some kind of service  as you can. There is no constant amount that is best. It varies.

So stand up for yourself. Lean on loved ones when you need to, and help them when they need you. We are all in this together. Right now I’ll take a walk and let myself feel so, so sad.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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