Behind the Mask
There are moments in our lives that live vibrantly in our memories. They shape our worldview, they lead to new passions and hobbies, and they help create who we are today. At UnityPoint Health - Meriter we see value in these personal stories. We are excited to share our narrative series called "Behind the Mask" where fellow employees share their stories with you, and our greater community. We hope that this weekly series will inspire you, will make you think about your own experiences and will help you get to know each other.
David Witkowski, Director of Talent Acquisition
It was massive. Made of oak, heavy, and mine. From start to finish, it was exactly what I wanted.
It was the first thing we made that was to be my own. The dresser was still collaborative, the plans, the process all done together. Woodwork was the only activity that my dad and I were both interested in and bonded over - at eleven years old, some kids play catch with their Dad, but we built furniture.
My Dad and I always built a lot of projects for other people. So embarking on the two month journey to make my dresser felt special.
Dad was and is meticulous in his woodwork. If something wasn't perfect in his eyes, we would start over. This idea of pride in your work resonated with me, I realized early on you don't want to finish crafting an object you are not truly proud of. Often, some projects for our house never seemed to reach completion. Either a mistake would bring us back to square one, completely stopping the project, or fixes would sideline it until there was more time or resources to finish it.
Any pressure that I felt to make perfection though, was self-imposed. I wanted to prove myself to him, and at the same time, Dad trusted me. He would lightly guide me, and yet it was clear that he felt confident my work would rise to his expectations, his level of perfection.
My dresser was one of the few things that we built that stayed in our house, and the fact that it got done meant that Dad approved of our work. I felt so much pride when I looked at the finished product. The routing designs, boxy corners, two doors with oak inserts, a deep, crisp, brown stain that popped against gold plated knobs. This was what I would later define as my "gold phase". I especially loved thinking about how all the work in finishing it; ten different sandpaper grits and polyurethane finishing turns the hardest wood into what feels like perfect glass.
It took four people to carry the dresser into my room, and I swear I reorganized it one hundred different times that first week, as well as moving it around the room nearly six times until I found the perfect spot. Friends would come over and I would show off my treasure.
I still feel that drive toward perfection as I continue to make furniture for friends and family, but I have learned to give myself some grace in the process. For me, and for Dad, the pride still lives in the completion of a piece and the knowledge that something built well and with care, will last.
Emily Borenitsch, Employee Wellness Manager
After a year-and-a-half searching for answers, I could exhaustively run through Eva's symptoms and how we got to her Rett Syndrome diagnosis in a matter of minutes. I felt like a vessel of information. At two, Eva couldn't communicate her own story, and as her Mom, my world revolved around introducing new doctors to her short but complicated history. I was constantly on auto-pilot.
When I took her in to meet her new primary care pediatrician, post diagnosis, I noticed that the office looked like any other primary care office – a few pictures on the walls and rolling cloud formations in the overhead light. As Eva and I waited for our first appointment with the doctor I began running through the checklist in my head: first noticing symptoms at 16 months, MRIs, EEGs, for being so young I had a lot of medical history to repeat to various doctors. The first questions the doctor had were expected and I began crossing off the checklist internally.
Then, out of nowhere, the doctor stopped, looked right at me, and asked, "And how are you doing?" I paused – the doctor was looking at me like she really wanted an answer, like the answer was just as important as Eva's medical story and then I thought, "How am I, really?"
It surprised me that how I was feeling would matter, that my well-being was and is directly tied into the well-being of my daughter. I hadn't thought about the fact that for the last year-and-a-half of appointments, and an arduous path to diagnosis – that how I was feeling would matter. To have someone force that moment, that pause to say, "No wait, what do you need?" made me re-evaluate my approach to Eva's care, and my own.
There is no cure for Rett Syndrome, no treatment. Every day is just doing what we can to manage symptoms for her entire life. It's daunting. As a parent, when you don't feel like you are giving everything you should, you feel like you're failing. Parent guilt times 100.
So, to have someone say, "How are you doing?" made me feel like there is a way to get through this. It felt like something tangible to hold onto. All of a sudden I had permission to say, "Wait, I am exhausted and that's okay."
The doctor's question made me realize the reality is that this is hard, and that's okay. It might be that I am not getting what I need, and that, too, is okay. It means I am human, too. I can be a person and a Mom. Suddenly, I could breathe again. It will be okay; I can give when I need to and refill myself when I need to.
That moment plays like an old favorite record upon occasion. When I feel like I am failing, caught in a loop of "is this enough?" I can remind myself that maybe I need to take a minute to care for me, so I can be fully present for her, for Eva.
Corinda Rainey-Moore, Community Engagement Manager
Growing up, media would present certain dolls as the standard of beauty – and none of them looked like me. I often wonder how my self-esteem or other Black girls' self-esteem would have improved to see ourselves in the dolls we played with day in and day out.
I never thought a lot about collecting dolls as a child, and I didn't even realize that was a hobby that people engaged in until I was in my early twenties. It was then that this wonderful woman I worked with told me she was learning how to make dolls, and I asked her if she would make me one. Not just any doll though, I wanted one that looked like me.
It was this doll that got me into doll collecting. What I love about doll collecting is that they can be passed down from generation to generation. As I started to collect more dolls that looked human, that resembled girls and women like me I became excited about my daughters and now granddaughter's being able to see this reflective representation.
It's not to say Black dolls didn't exist before then, they did, but they didn't look Black. Their features, in particular the nose never seemed to match the noses of my friends or family and their hair was always straight. Their skin color was also always the same tone, when in reality there are so many different skin tones in African Americans.
So, when my co-worker was making me a doll, one that I could collaborate on, I was elated. The process took about a month. There were so many personal details like the gold and black colors of my husband's fraternity making it into the dress design, and her face – she looked SO real. What meant a great deal to me was that my co-worker wanted to get the details right. The process of getting her and seeing her come together made me feel so valued.
I remember at the time it was nearing Christmas and I went into a pharmacy in our neighborhood, looking for gifts for my daughters. There were so many dolls being sold in the store, and not a single one was Black. Even then, in a predominately Black neighborhood, it was hard to find a Black doll.
When my co-worker was finished, I brought my doll home, proudly displaying her above our fireplace. My girls wanted to play with her and hold her when they first saw her – I could see their awe and excitement.
Now, my collection has grown, to nearly 300 dolls. And what I value the most is that my granddaughters are growing up in a world where they have dolls that reflect who they are, and what they look like so that they know that they too, are beautiful.
Sarah Valencia, Director of Population Health and Addiction Services
Snakes terrify me, I don't even like looking at them at a zoo behind glass. My motto, however, when I joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Honduras was to push myself beyond the limits of my fears. So, when the opportunity arose to see a rare pink boa constrictor off the mainland I thought, "This is an opportunity I really don't want to miss" – I would have to power through my fear.
I began mentally preparing myself to see this magical pink boa, figuring I would be with guides and researchers and everything would go smoothly.
The area we were hiking was somewhere between a mountain and a hill, but very steep; not a traditional switchback traverse. As we started it became pretty apparent that the next thirty minutes weren't going to be an easy climb.
I asked the guides how we would make it up, it felt nearly vertical. I was told to use the ropes that were situated about every ten feet or so between the trees. Looking at the ropes, I noticed that they were already in use. How convenient, they seemed to be a favorite sunspot for brown boa constrictors.
It suddenly dawned on me that in all my preparing to see a rare pink boa, I hadn't really thought through what other terrifying wildlife might be part of this journey. Completely terrified at this point, I decided the best approach to making it up the mountain was to crawl on all fours. The alternative of sharing a rope with six-foot boa constrictors was just not an option for me.
At the top, the view was truly breathtaking. As far as the eye could see in one direction was the turquoise Caribbean waters meeting the horizon. In the other direction sat the mainland of Honduras. Despite this beauty, my terror about descending the mountain was rising. We were going down the same way, the way littered with brown boas.
Trying to save a little face, I thought I would attempt some bravery on my way down and started out my descent in an upright position. It didn't last very long. After a couple of steps, my foot came out from underneath me and time slowed. I could see it happening before I even felt it. My arms flew up ahead of me, struggling for something to grab ahold to in order to break my fall.
As I squeezed one of the boas on the rope, it felt like the gentle give of a tennis ball, but warm and dry from the rays of the sun. I screamed as the boa reared its head and tail, equally surprised by my intrusive grab.
Letting go, I began falling and after what felt like minutes with the adrenaline kicking in, my fall turned into a controlled descent right on my behind. I was getting down that mountain, far away from those snakes, and if it was going to be on my butt, so be it.
Minutes later I stopped at the bottom. My ego was quite bruised, but thankfully I had avoided a dangerous snake bite. My heart was racing, "what did I THINK was going to happen?!" I was out there looking for snakes.
That moment was unforgettable. Even now, I often think back on it as a way to plan better. Asking myself before I embark on something new, "What else do you need to plan for besides the pink boa?" One thing is certain, if I can survive squeezing a boa constrictor, I can survive anything in life. "Come on Sarah, you got this."
Kim Shekoski, Accreditation and Regulatory Specialist
Honestly if my house were on fire, I would make sure my family was safe and if I could go back for one thing, this would be it. It was, and is, my baby.
I started playing a rented violin when I was 9 thanks to a program at my school , but after one year the program was cancelled. Still, that experience was very impressionable. I decided pretty hard and fast that I was going to play the violin my whole life, and someday, play at the symphony.
That's when I began saving half of my allowance every week. I told my parents that playing violin was what I was going to do for the rest of my life, "this is who I am!"
Even without having an opportunity to play, I followed through on my commitment. Four years had gone by saving and by then, it was pretty clear to my parents that I was very serious about being a violinist. At the end of 8th grade they consulted my Aunts and Uncle, who played for many symphonies, on the best instrument to last me through college. My Dad traded in my grandfather's old guitar and bought me a beautiful, well-made German violin. Perfect for the classics.
While it wasn't a surprise, the moment they brought my baby home still left me speechless. It was completely surreal. I had been saving for this for so long, it was hard to believe that I was finally getting my violin.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It. Was. Magical. Picking it up for the first time felt like I had filled a void that had been missing in me, it was like a limb, an extension of myself. This violin was always supposed to be mine. I started playing it and in my 14-year-old mind, I heard the symphony.
My work was only beginning. I wanted to reach my dream of high-level performance so badly that I enacted strict rules for my parents. My daily violin meditation was not to be interrupted. No phone calls, nothing. "If the house is on fire, come and get me." I knew that if I was to be competitive in college, I had a short amount of time to practice when my peers had already been playing for almost a decade at that point. I practiced until my fingers hurt, and beyond – I loved every minute of it.
Life, well, it happens, right? After one year of playing in college I got a job at a nursing home and decided that the violin could still be my passion, but it doesn't have to be my career.
What happened next was a 16-year hiatus, that made me feel less than whole. I never lost my passion for it and always knew deep in my heart that I would eventually get back to it. I would go to the Overture, or Concerts on the Square and cry at the beauty of the symphony.
When I finally picked up my baby again, I was hard on myself. I remembered my quality of play so perfectly and knew that it would be a long while before I was ready to play publicly again. The first time I ever played my baby, I heard my future as a classical symphony violinist and now, I just heard nostalgia for what once was.
I had to relearn a lot, retrain my ear, my fingers – but I love the ride. My end goals are different, no longer am I playing for career success, I am playing for me.
Pem Lo, PM Security Supervisor
It looked like a crime scene. Normally pristine, our bathroom was covered in towels, and looked like the aftermath of what is normally reserved for a delivery room.
A little after midnight, my wife had woken me up – she was having contractions. "I think he's ready to come out." This being our second child, I knew the drill. I began grabbing our bags and then she comes up to me and says, "Well, maybe not. I don't want to go and waste the nurse's time."
A little more sleep and a few hours later, she wakes me up and says it's time. As soon as we step outside to go to the car, she says "Wait, we can't go anymore."
"Why is that?"
"He's coming out right now!" she exclaimed.
You gotta be kidding me! I entered a state of deep panic, while trying to stay focused as I dialed 911. The dispatcher was so incredibly calm; how they could be so calm? I don't know. I was in a whirlwind of emotion.
They told me to grab some towels, scissors and string. I was erratically running around the house trying to find these items while my wife is standing in the bathroom, screaming in pain "He's coming out now!"
Standing there, in the bathroom doorway I could see his head coming out, oh my gosh, there he is! I yell into the phone, "He's here! He's coming out now!"
I was frozen. Before I knew it, Apollo had made his way into the world. What just happened?! I rushed over to him and he wasn't breathing. The seconds it took before he let out a large cry felt like an eternity. The paramedics that arrived assured me he was okay, he looked to be breathing normally and crying normally.
Much like how he came into this world, Apollo is independent, energetic and an adventurous 2-year-old. He certainly keeps me on my toes!
Amy Garza, Manager of Service Excellence
The air changed. Seconds before, all of us sixth graders were buzzing with near summertime energy and post lunch sugar rushes. I remember it was warm out, the windows were open, and the classroom was filled with chatter.
Suddenly you could hear a pin drop and all eyes were on me. A boy who had been teasing and making fun of me had called me a word I had never heard before. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it carried weight because the air changed. The classroom chatter stopped.. The breeze seemed to vanish, and things were uncomfortably quiet. It was unsettling. "What did that word mean?" My head ran away with my anxiousness over this unwanted attention; I felt like I was suffocating, and my confidence was gone. "This must be bad, and it must be true."
My classmates were staring at me with looks of shock and disbelief. I didn't feel safe, so asking what the word meant was out of the question. All I kept thinking was, this is bad, this word – it must be really bad.
I waited for my Mom to get home, my Dad is not one for curse words, so I knew if I brought up what happened there was a chance of being punished for repeating this word, in any context. Never having heard it, I couldn't have imagined it was about my ethnicity.
As we were cleaning up dinner, I confessed "Someone said something to me today and I don't really know what it meant, but apparently it's something bad."
When I repeated the name I was called, the air changed yet again. My Mom and Dad were staring at me with undivided attention and then my Dad just snapped into pure anger, ranting to himself. Mom, gently told me, "This is a bad word, something people use that is meant to be mean and hurtful; it's something people call people who are Mexican."
I thought, "WOW. This explains Dad's anger."
"I can't believe this. This is exactly what I wanted to protect her from!" Dad is spiraling. Mom tries to calm him down. At 12 it was hard for me to understand why he was so angry, still, it left its mark on me. Clearly, he had experienced this himself in his life, and now I was too.
After my Dad took his ranting outside, my Mom gently tried to explain to me, "This is something your Dad heard growing up, all the time because he is Mexican. He wasn't treated kindly at school and got in trouble for speaking Spanish. All his life he has been trying to prove himself as worthy."
Being 12, it's hard to fully grasp what this all means. "He worried if we taught you Spanish when you were little you would be seen as different and experience the same racism he did growing up," my Mom continued.
The community I grew up in was mostly white, and this sudden realization that everyone saw me as different left me unsure of who I was. Suddenly, my life wasn't steeped in innocence. I now had a new understanding that people were willing to slap a term on me, with intentions of making me feel bad, or not worthy because of my difference, because of my ethnicity. I lost a lot that day.
Since then there was always kind of that thought in the back of my head: "Am I being treated differently because of this" Decades later, I can say with confidence that I am secure with my identity and better understand the experiences I had growing up.
Laura Megna, Family Liason Care Coordinator – Newborn Intensive Care
Early on in coaching I over prepared. I had a lesson plan, and I was determined to stick to it for the betterment of the team. It was so much responsibility to make sure the girls were improving their game and getting them ready for the next level of play. I found out pretty quickly that I needed to adjust my own expectations because being a role model to these girls often went beyond the techniques of soccer.
Every single year there was an intense fear around tryouts and what would happen the next year. I started creating a share circle the week before tryouts where the girls would talk about their biggest fears. I remember one girl started crying; she knew she wasn't the best player on the team and she wasn't going to be able to stay with her friends, so we talked through all the worst-case scenarios.
What are the positives that could come from that experience? We talked about how sometimes all we can do is work hard and show up and make the best of things. That in life we don't always get into the school we want to get into or get the job we want. Her teammates pledged to stay friends, no matter where each of them ended up.
Often coaching isn't just about technical skills, it's about developing young kids into eventually confident and secure adults. As parents, we have the same kind of responsibility and if often starts with setting expectations.
My wife and I took my son, Harry miniature golfing, and we entered the experience knowing there are 18 holes, we will move from spot to spot and then it's over. Harry didn't know that. I'm pretty sure all he saw when we arrived were tons of toys, everywhere.
He lost his patience pretty quickly and it became a nightmare. The reality is he didn't know what to expect because we didn't try and explain to him what the process would be. With soccer, the girls often came in with fear and worry over what it was going to be like to work with a new coach, and what was expected of them. The more that you lay out what you expect the easier it is for them to feel safe. The more consistency there is, the more they thrive. The same holds true for Harry.
I learned that managing and being real about myself, and honest with myself about my own emotions is a huge piece of both parenting and coaching. Sometimes you have to take a step back, reflect, have empathy, but not let your own emotion drive decision making and the conversation. I have always been a wear my heart on my sleeve kind of person so keeping a calm demeanor was and is a challenge for me, even more so when I'm tired. Like coaching, with parenting you don't always get a good break. So sometimes when you are really tired and have been at it for a long time you start to lose perspective. Being able to take a step back, take deep breaths, then come back and talk through what you are seeing and what is happening is a valuable skill. What I see is not always what the girls I am coaching are seeing and neither is it what Harry sees.
The successes are similar shared moments. When the girls would hit a technique during a game or practice, they often found my eye contact as if to say "Did you see?! I did that thing you said to do, and it WORKED!" Similarly, for months I've been trying to teach Harry to say please and thank you. The first time I heard him say it unprompted, I was so proud. Now he says thank you all the time, even when it's not warranted as if he's saying "Look Mom! I said thank you, did you hear that?!"
When they get it, it feels amazing; it's very rewarding! Whether it's Harry saying please and thank you, or the girls at the end of the season telling me they wished I could coach them just another year – I feel proud knowing that I have done something to impact these lives, and shape the future.
Gerhard Kraske, MD Internal Medicine
Right place, right time, right instrument. I had been playing accordion since I was five years old, mostly thanks to my parent's German heritage. Little did I realize that this unique talent would be so lucrative.
I remember my first real gig, at 18 I was hired as entertainment for a party. Driving up in my 1967 VW bug, I arrived at what could only be described as a palatial mansion in Beverly Hills. I had been thinking about this moment all day; I loved playing accordion and the thought of making some money for performing was truly exciting.
When I arrived though, I really thought I was at the wrong address. Suddenly, out rushes what I can only assume was the butler, "Hired help is supposed to use the servant's entrance around back!" he abruptly said.
"I'm the hired musician for the evening," I responded. Who lives here?! I was thinking.
A woman came out, and informed me that I would be playing out back by the cabanas, poolside. Guests would be arriving in a half hour.
I walked into the front of the house and felt like I was in the middle of a Hollywood dream scene. Elegant and swanky is how I'd describe the foyer decorated with a water fountain and duel grand staircases. In the back of my mind, I just kept hearing my teacher tell me that I should have fun and be myself.
I noticed the grounds were perfectly manicured as I made my way poolside. Setting up the stool I brought, I took out my accordion and begun playing as the guests filtered in.
Equal parts nerves and excitement in the beginning led to utter enjoyment as I could see everyone appreciating my repertoire. Showtunes, musicals, American classics like Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rogers and Hammerstein filtered out through my fingertips.
My scheduled three hours turned into four, as the crowd was clearly digging the music. Soon after, one gig turned into more as word of mouth spread about the kid accordion player. I played parties like that for ten years until I decided at 28 that I would go to medical school. My weekend gigs turned into the income that fully paid for years of education. I never lost excitement for playing and still to this day, play as much as I can.