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.
Stephanie Barman, GYN Surgery – Nurse Coordinator, Operating Room
Many days started with my sisters and I loading into Mom's minivan, headed for the fabric store. You could say I grew up around sewing. Some days it felt like a chore, others I was excited about making another pair of gym shorts for basketball. Having my own projects to work on was always fun. I don't think I had a single pair of gym shorts that didn't have a matching scrunchie.
Thanks to my Mom, I learned to sew on a Kenmore when I was 10 years old. My Mom sewed all the time. A project for a neighbor here, a bunch of items for someone in the county there.
We sewed next to each other and it really wasn't until this past year that I realized how lucky I was to have Mom right there to help me if a bobbin fell out, or a needle broke. In college I moved to the city, and as life moves forward, physical distance can sometime turn into emotional distance. Family gatherings aside, I saw Mom less and less, and likewise, my sewing machine collected dust.
When the pandemic began, as an operating room (OR) nurse, I felt a little helpless and anxious. What if we were to get a surge? Are there enough scrub hats, masks, proper PPE? I saw an immediate need for scrub hats in the OR. They are required and we were running low. Here was an opportunity for me to not sit idle during a time where it was easy to feel helpless. So I began sewing scrub hats, and enlisted my Mom with her serger, (a heavy duty machine that finishes raw edges) to help me finish them.
From there, it quickly developed into Dane County Mask Makers, a group that supported each other online with donated fabric, troubleshooting and camaraderie in a time when we all felt so disconnected.
It feels good to keep making masks, and through this process I have been able to reconnect with my Mom. She's risen to the challenge, making over 5,000 masks. Being able to bond with my Mom again carries so much value, and it looks like my desire to help is something she passed on to me.
Marcia Moe, Clinic Administrator
People often use the phrase Daddy's little girl, but I was more his sidekick, his farm buddy. Growing up in Boaz, a three-bar, one church small town in Wisconsin, lent itself to outdoor father-daughter bonding activities. My favorite was mushroom hunting. It's a better time than Christmas, and it lasts for three weeks in the spring.
Dad was never much of a talker, but we would get carried away in conversation when we hunted every year from childhood until our last hunting trip when I was 19 years old.
We began our final hunt relatively early, around 8:00 in the morning. The day started off cloudy and as we started making our way up the hill looking for the dead elms where morels flourish, I could smell the mushrooms in the air. Moist, dirt, a touch of humidity; I knew some were nearby.
Over the years, Dad had taught me everything he knew about finding mushrooms. I still remember when I was seven, the first time I found one he had missed. I felt so proud that I had figured out how to locate them without him finding them first.
That last day hunting, he seemed to be content with me taking the lead, bouncing from tree to tree – us talking about my eldest daughter Sam, who was just shy of turning one. She was his world, and that warmed my heart.
After lunch, the day turned sunny and hot. I was careful not to roll up my long sleeves, knowing the prickly brush could leave its mark on exposed arms and legs. Like any other day, occasionally Dad would playfully send a branch back my way - to see if I was paying attention. It was so easy to get lost in the scurrying squirrels and distant chirps of chickadees.
The conversation shifted to tomorrow: Mother's Day. It was going to be my first, and I was excited. "Marna, your Mom's card is in my top drawer and the flower I got her is in your closet." I thought it odd that he was sharing that with me. Why would I need to know that? The rest of the afternoon, he continued letting me lead the hunt, and pointing out trees for me to go check. He seemed a little tired. It was a full and fun day, though. We made our way home close to dinnertime with two bags filled with morels. A wonderful bounty.
The next morning, Dad was gone. A massive heart attack. Friends used to ask me why I went home so much. My answer was always because I got to spend time with my best friend. I couldn't have asked for a better last day with my Dad, doing the thing we both loved so much.
Kimberly Curran, Nurse Practitioner – Family Medicine
TW: names have been changed for this story.
"Thank you for making sure I was okay."
I think about her often; Lily, just a child, had gone through so much and if it weren't for her, I would have only worked as a Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE) for two years. It ended up being 11 rewarding years.
I was drawn to this kind of work even though it was emotionally challenging. I saw men, women and children at the most traumatic times of their lives. They had experienced something they probably had never experienced before.
Being an FNE nurse was not without its challenges. It was my job to explain the options a patient has available based on the violence that was committed against them, then move forward with the options they chose. There is an element of necessary detachment, so there were days I left telling myself to take deep breaths, try not to cry. It can be very emotional to hear what happened to people.
Most FNE nurses burn out by year two. Part of that is from having to put aside your own personal feelings and focus on what this person needs from you without judgement, even if they decide not to report the abuse.
When I was paged for Lily's exam, it happened to be right at the two-year mark when most FNE nurses look for other work, and I could feel the burnout building. Like most exams, I approached it knowing there would need to be long breaks, giving her some time if she needed to stop. Lily's experience was traumatic; she told me what hurt on her body. I said, "I am really proud of you for telling your Mom what happened. My name is Kim, and I am here to make sure your body is okay."
Generally, the exams are a lot like a physical with more intense looks at the skin and evidence collection via swabs and photography. The most important thing is to give your patient control over the process, asking, "Is it okay if I touch your arm with a swab?"
It was meeting Lily that day that made me remember the work I was doing was important to those experiencing a vulnerable moment in their lives. Violence is so prevalent in our society and this was my way of making a difference. This was my purpose.
Having her come back to see me and give me a thank you card was both unexpected and incredibly heartwarming. "She really liked you, she was telling her friends about her nurse Kim," her Mom said. Lily gave me flowers, the card and a big hug. It takes a lot of trust to hug someone after trauma; I was truly honored.
"You are brave, Lily. I am so proud of you." I told her.
"Thank you for making sure I was okay, you're the best nurse." It's a moment I will keep with me, always.
Kiah Calmese-Walker, Director Supply Chain Services
The car flipped at least eight times.
My family was making a big move from Los Angeles to Madison where my Mom had accepted a position at UW Madison. My Dad, my sister Keziah and our dog, Ms. Parker, and I took off after one last visit with PauPau, my Grandpa before beginning the long journey. At 19, I was home for the summer and able to accompany my Dad and sister on the long journey to the Midwest.
I'm not sure how long I was asleep in the passenger seat of our Mazda sedan, but suddenly I could feel the car gaining speed and the abrupt sound of dirt and rocks hitting the windshield.
I woke up.
I wasn't sure what was happening, but it felt like we were turning and then bumping. I realized we were in immediate danger. I could see the early morning light. I let my body relax and started counting how many times the car hit the ground. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
When the car settled the sunroof was busted open and the cracked glass windshield was in front of me. I had limited range of movement in my neck, but from what I could see Keziah was still in the backseat. I was so relieved. Ms. Parker, our dog, was missing.
"I'm okay. I am fine, baby. I'm fine," my Dad was mumbling next to me. I could see he wasn't fine; his head was split open.
"Betcha by golly wow, you're the one I've been waiting for forever..." The Stylistics were still playing on the stereo, and it blended with Keziah praying out loud.
I felt hot, really hot. My heart was beating fast and I could barely move my jaw. Time seemed non-existent, but I remember looking at my Dad, worrying his head was going to hit the windshield. With tingling arms, I reached over and held his head up.
A man with a thick mustache, dark glasses and a baseball cap came into view, "Are you okay?," he asked. I could hear a woman talking to my sister in the back seat, "We called for help, everything will be fine."
"Can you help me with my Dad's head?," I was able to blurt out, then my arm dropped, and I lost consciousness.
The next thing I remember was being lifted into the ambulance, I tried speaking, "There was a man and a lady helping us, please get their information."
"Ma'am, there was nobody down there. We could barely get to you." I lost consciousness again.
Ms. Parker was up on the road barking uncontrollably and luckily witnesses had seen us go over the cliff, but no one had been able to reach us right away because of how far down we had gone. To this day, my sister and I believe the man and woman that helped us were angels. The way down to where our car landed was treacherous and nearly impossible without assistance from heavy equipment.
I was in and out of consciousness until after surgery. When I woke up, Brett, my boyfriend at the time, was standing over my bed. He had flown in from Minneapolis. I started to cry. He was smiling at me, "You're beautiful Kiah." He didn't leave my side.
When I was able to get out of bed, I hobbled over to the mirror. The skin on the right side of my face was scrapped off, and my hair was missing, bruises were everywhere, and my jaw was wired shut. My blood shot eyes saw Brett come into view as he put his arms around me. I thought, "Oh my God, I look hideous." As if he heard me, he said, "I think you're beautiful. The scars will heal."
He helped me and my family through recovery before we were able to make the move to Madison. It was during that time I realized how much he really loved me. Before I left Los Angeles, my Aunt's cornered me, "If you don't marry this boy, we'll kill you. We know how much he loves you." It clicked for me then and there, that this was the man I was meant to build my life with. 26 years later, it was the best decision I've ever made.
Melissa Horton, Clinical Resource Nurse
The journey to welcome Ethan into our family was certainly filled with anticipation. Just getting to China was of course a long process, and for someone like myself who is such a planner, letting the adoption agency plan our entire trip, down to three days of sightseeing before we could meet our son, was a new experience.
In the midst of trying and failing to learn Chinese and structured sightseeing, I was getting nervous. What is it going to be like to meet my son?
I knew very little. Ethan was 21 months old, he loved cookies and that he had a grade three cleft palate. In the U.S. there is no classification like that, so the medical information was limited. I did know his lip had been fixed because of the photos I had seen.
My mind wandered with worries. Would he be afraid of us? Nervous? How would he react to seeing two adults that looked nothing like anybody he had ever seen? Would he be healthy? My hopes were that it would go smoothly, but you just never know. For me, he already felt like family, like my son.
When we finally saw him, he was very quiet. I could tell he was studying us, trying to figure out what was going on. I felt overwhelming love and affection. Finally, I can hold him. I can get to know him, learn his personality. I have my son! It was just like when we first saw Kailey after giving birth, an instant bond.
It was a two-hour trip back to the hotel and on the journey, he just snuggled up and slept on me. It was a moment I will treasure forever. The entire rest of the trip, I couldn't keep my eyes off him. Inspecting his hands, toes, making sure everything is working and there. I was just soaking it all in.
The best part was finally getting to witness his personality, and he loved laughter – peek-a-boo quickly became a favorite game. Even now, at 16, he cracks jokes whenever he can.
When Ethan and my daughter finally met back home in Wisconsin, they seemed to be in awe of each other. There was this instant bond and Kailey became a mother hen. Now, they're like typical siblings, bickering one minute and defending each other the next.
A lot of people ask if I felt as bonded when I met him as I did with my biological daughter. I wouldn't know any difference whether he was a biological child or an adopted child. It's just an instant thing that happens. It's strange. I don't think families are just built by bloodlines. It's so much more.
Katelyn Harms, (Klein) Infection Preventionist Lead
My Mom always said, "Kleins are happiest at high speeds."
I grew up in a racing family. Weekends were spent in the repair shop, at the racetrack, on a mountain trail, in a boat on a lake or gliding on a snowmobile in the Wisconsin snow.
Destined to be around fast-moving vehicles, my husband also happens to be a motorcycle rider. After being a passenger on his bikes, I got the itch to take a safety rider course.
I wanted my own view, and I loved it.
My first bike was a smaller Harley sportster, and three years later, I got "Bluesteel."
That's right, I am a fan of Zoolander, but look at this bike. My 2006 Dyna Low Rider; 6-speed, chrome, and a gorgeous blue – it just fits.
There is much talk about how what kind of bike you have is a reflection of your personality, but what I love about Harley's the most is that they are classic looking, and their sound is incredibly distinctive. Pop, pop, pause, pop, pop, pause – getting louder and on repeat. The rumble of the pipes is so well known, there is a common catchphrase among Harley riders, "loud pipes save lives."
I've ridden Bluesteel for about 15,000 miles, from routes up and down the Mississippi, through Tennessee and a visit to Sturgis in South Dakota, among many a curvy road travel.
For me, owning my view, feeling every curve and bend of the road – each trip is about that feeling, that journey on the backroads. I look forward to the slow journey. Being on the motorcycle, I feel FREE and strong. Female riders aren't as common, so I personally feel very confident and strong. I love that feeling. So much so, I usually yell out the occasional "Wooohooo!"
Christina Jackson, Director of Perioperative Services
12 hours, 34 minutes, and 44 seconds.
2.4 miles in the water. 112 miles on wheels. 26.2 miles on foot.
Let me tell you, you never forget your first Iron Man; it's like your first love.
Just getting to Panama City Beach felt like a success, you've trained for months, you're healthy, you're there. Part of me thought, "Is this real? Am I really doing this?"
I don't know if you really ever get there in your mind and so most of the time, you are managing your expectations around, "If I don't finish, it's okay." And an overall excitement, overwhelming happiness that you're there and you just need to do it.
The Gulf of Mexico is breathtaking,. Setting up in the dark ,there is a rampant energy brewing, and then the second the sun begins to rise: the crowd quiets, and there is a stillness. It's an amazing sight Before the cannon booms the start of the race, there are 2500 triathletes, ready to jump in the water at the same time.
Imagine swimming in a washing machine and that will accurately describe the start of this race as 2,500 bodies fill the water simultaneously. The water is churning, and arms and legs jab out unexpectedly. It is dangerous mayhem. Thankfully, I am a strong swimmer, and I found my pace. The key is not to kick a lot, saving your legs for the bike and run and avoiding kicking other athletes in the water. The swim is the only place where drafting is allowed and I found a good draft, going through the crystal-clear blue water quickly.
The transitions are hard. The clock never stops, and the transitions are a part of the race. After 2.4 miles in the water, I had to adjust from being horizontal to fully upright. It's a big change for your cardiovascular system. You run out of the water, over rocks with bare feet, and are stripped of your wetsuit before putting on all the necessary gear to start 112 miles on the bike.
The course for the bike was relatively flat, but the last 20 miles I hit some strong head winds. It was like going uphill without a break. It's tiring, and nerve-wracking. Would I make the cutoff time? If you don't make each portion by the cutoff time, your race is over. At this point, the excitement of jumping on the bike has completely worn off and my mind races through the math. If I continue at this speed, will I make it in time?
Thankfully, I did. Now, all that's standing between me and the end is 26.2 miles.
This whole time, I have made the race manageable by thinking of the entire race as little chunks of time. You can't think about the whole thing because you wouldn't do it. Nobody sane would do that.
The run was flat. It surprised me how trained I was for this. Despite all that training, you're battling every emotion. I wanted to quit, I felt great, everything hurt, I was hungry, I had to go the bathroom, am I going to throw up? I learned to accept each thing as it came, treating whatever symptom you're feeling in the moment and following it up one foot after another. Some would just call that being stubborn.
I finished in the dark, I was tired – just spent. At the same time, I kept thinking, "I DID IT!" and not only did I finish, but I exceeded my wildest dreams, finishing in 12 hours, when I honestly expected to finish in 14 or 15. It's amazing what the body can do, and in the moment it kind of feels like it doesn't belong to you. It is just doing what it is going to do. You realize, "I can do anything in this world. I got this."
Piper Bacskai, Occupational Therapist
Favorite experiences often get broken up into snippets of vivid memories. Like a video reel, they can flash before our eyes in just a moment of recollection.
The Badlands, Rapid City, Yellowstone.
It was our first big family road trip. Eily was 8 and Sara 4.
I remember stopping off first in Sioux Falls and then heading to the Badlands the next morning on Father's Day. It's where we took this picture. Experiencing these places through the eyes of my girls and together as a family unit was so meaningful.
Eily was adventurous, she was amazed by the vastness – running out with my husband Josh onto the cliffs. Meanwhile, Sara held onto me for dear life.
What ended up being the most memorable parts of this trip though were the times in the car. The games, the conversations and being truly together for two solid weeks.
"Pete and Repeat were on a boat. Pete fell off. Who's left?" asked Eily.
"Repeat!" exclaimed, Sara.
We had a campsite deadline we were rushing to make in Wyoming and trying to manage a stressful drive through Custer Park.
"Okay! Pete and Repeat were on a ."
Over, and over, and over again. At the time, it stressed us out, and we sternly told them to cut it out. Now, it's an inside joke that everyone brings up randomly.
I remember looking out at sunsets in Yellowstone. Peaceful and beautiful.
The sharing of experiences, reliving what we just witnessed at one campsite. Telling each other how we each saw it unfold. Each viewpoint unique and part of a whole experience as a family unit.
I never realized how one road trip and one summer could just cement itself in my memory so strongly. As kids grow older, those family moments are fleeting. We don't always get that time together anymore, so I cherish the memories.
Christina Malone, Addiction/Behavioral Health Therapist
I was singing and dancing since before I could remember and when I was eleven, I started praise dancing. Another form of ministry, praise dancing is taking a gospel song and worshiping through dance. I loved it.
I was the third kid out of seven, and didn't get much attention, but when I would sing – oh, how free I felt. I imagined myself as the only person in the room, and nothing else mattered in that moment. Just the music.
When I got to college, I decided to find myself outside of my spirituality. Growing up, I imagined my name in lights as I would sing. I felt like when I sang, I was touching people. Helping them to understand that life can be difficult, but you gotta keep moving. You got this! It was freeing.
I enjoyed the connection to people, which made my break from singing that much harder. The flipside of singing for people is being exposed to judgement. It made me second guess my voice. When I tried out for American Idol they said, "You have an amazing voice, you just need more experience and practice." You start to ruminate on those thoughts, "dang, I'm not good enough." And, "are they really true?" You start to believe them. And then, you just stop singing altogether.
My husband and I fell in love over music, and now my kids have the same passion for it. How they enjoy it, dance to it. When my oldest sings to it; it's just so pure.
It started to re-spark that passion in me. I remember when I used to love singing, how freeing it was. It was genuinely pure, and I missed it.
For years my husband would ask me to sing in the house and I'd get shy and say no. Lately though, I've started doing it. Singing to my kids, seeing the joy in their face when I do is just so fulfilling. I think, why did I ever stop this?
Now, I want my kids to see that you can be and do whatever you want. You've gotta practice what you preach.
Matthew Kaltenberg, Manager Central Staffing Office
What I love most about canoeing is that it usually revolves around groups of people I care about and making connections. I love to get people together to just have a good time, seeing them enjoying themselves brings me joy. And I love the calm of the experience.
Maybe it was how I grew up – there was always family get togethers. My Grandparents were the cornerstone of our family and the events always revolved around them during birthdays and holidays.
When I got older, some of those family events brought stress. I remember a birthday on the 4th of July for my grandmother, and I had so much pent up inside me. I had a significant other, but I didn't feel comfortable bringing him or talking about him. At one point, I remember just being in tears – unable to be myself fully caused so much anxiety.
Some months before that party I had told my sister that I'm gay, but she was the only one that knew and there was so much fear resonating around my family finding out; me not being accepted for who I am. Just knowing that there was even one person that could potentially have a negative reaction or have someone I care about decide not to be a part of my life because of who I am made it stressful.
For me, this anxiety over being accepted by family was hard to hold onto because I value connecting with people that matter to me. When my family finally learned about who I am, they struggled with it, but I purposefully found ways to still connect with them. I've always held onto the belief that people can change.
People can learn, too. Over time, I was able to have more conversations with my family and found that through relationship building you can learn to grow. I have been able to reconnect with family. When you go with the flow of the people around you, accept the water's direction, and paddle with the water, you can learn to rebuild relationships through patience and guidance.
Alex Marshall, Informatics Training Specialist
The reality is never what you expect it to be.
When I climb, I get into this flow state. I feel like I am allowed to express myself creatively and honestly, and I feel totally at peace.
Each experience climbing is different, and most trips I go in with certain expectations. The most memorable trips though, are the ones that are the most fraught with craziness. They tend to bubble up to the surface more often than good trips. Maybe it helps you kind of find the calm in the storm. You can remember those experiences and say, "Oh my god, do you remember how insane that was?!" But then, it's like, "Oh yeah, we also had such an incredible time."
My trip to Potrero Chico in Mexico was like that. We went to climb Timewave Zero, a climb over 2,000 feet, with 23 pitches. It's the second longest sport route in North America.
My climbing partner and I had planned for this trip pretty extensively. When we arrived after the long drive from Madison to Mexico, we spent a few days familiarizing ourselves with some of the moderate, multi-pitch climbs in the area. The entire time we were there the weather was comfortable and in the mid-seventies. On the day of the climb up Timewave Zero, that is what we planned for.
Before sun-up we began at the base. Worry set in pretty quickly, because as the sun rose, the clouds seemed to dissipate. Then, maybe halfway up we started to seriously worry about water usage. It was here, where there was a small enough ledge where we could reassess, when things started to get pretty crazy.
We saw a group ahead of us and they were simul-climbing. That's where the lead climber is climbing while the belayer (the support climber holding the rope) is also climbing. It's a good method to use to speed up a climb.
Suddenly, the belayer began to fall. It's the worst thing that could happen, because that means that the climber, who was probably a good 80 feet above, had no idea that they were about to get ripped from the wall.
Fortunately, there was some protection between them, but just imagine being ripped from the wall and falling a good ten feet before being stopped. They were far enough away that we were safe from their fall, but still had a vantage point to see what was happening.
My partner and I had been simul-climbing earlier, and it was at that point we realized that it was probably not the best idea, but that made the rest of our climb much harder, literally doubling our climbing time.
To make matters more dire, we were nearly out of water, and it was scorching hot. We were limiting our water intake, and stubbornly pushing forward, or, rather, up. By the time I reached the last two pitches, I was fully dehydrated. I remember trying to open my hand and my fingers just wouldn't respond. It was like they were stuck in a climbing position. I was worried I was going to pass out.
Luckily, I had a GRIGRI, which is a device that is used to belay people safely. It's self-locking so that if you start to fall it will actually pinch the rope and prevent the climber from falling.
When we made it to the top, I was so worried about rappelling down without any water that I didn't really look around me. It's one of the reasons why I want to go back, to really take it all in. It took teamwork to center ourselves, make a plan for descent, and go.
Going down was nerve-wracking, and I was running on adrenaline. Rappelling is a lengthy process, especially when it is 21 pitches. My partner and I definitely made sure that we double, and triple checked our gear.
In hindsight I learned a lot, and a lot of it was really fun. Maybe too much fun! There was something about the sweet relief we felt back at the hostel as we downed fresh mango juice. Despite the rocky climb, we were able to look back and appreciate the experience.
I learned to plan better. If we had only some extra water, the day would have turned out differently. Plan for what you don't expect because, reality? It's never exactly what you expect it to be.
Elisabeth Atwell, NewStart Addictions and Mental Health Therapist and Clinical Supervisor
That's how one might describe the house my mom bought when I was 17. I spent the summer working for her, helping her fix the house up. You could see the beauty there; it was an old brick farmhouse - but with the old owners being heavy smokers, coupled with dropped tiled ceilings and carpet everywhere, made for quite a smelly and musty house.
My Mom and I saw the good bones. We spent most of the summer gutting the house, and I remember distinctly looking at this one wall, thinking, "there used to be a door here." I just knew it would have been a space people walked through. When we began pulling down the wood paneling, we discovered the doorway.
It created this wonderful flow, and my Mom thought that was just so cool – and I did too. I trusted my intuition, my mom trusted me, and we found beauty. It was empowering.
My husband and I saw our now forever home on Facebook of all places. Someone posted, "look at this crazy old house." We clicked on the link and in the middle of winter drove out to see the house, which was actually for sale. Immediate response? "Oh, this is cool."
After we purchased, a company that did ghost hunting reached out to us to see if they could come in and film an advertisement. The answer was clearly no. I saw the home that it used to be and could be again, and I hated that people saw it as this broken, scary place. I saw nothing but potential.
The first room we reclaimed was the living room. When we first bought it, it smelled of animal feces, and it was wet. Wallpaper was peeling off everywhere, and it was dark and cold.
The first thing we did in the living room was install a wood stove. I had this clear image in my mind of a warm fire, music bouncing around the walls, and lush, green plants growing in pots. Just so much life.
Now, the house is full of noise, mostly from my kids, Warren (4) and Harriet (3).
What I love about Warren is how he sees potential. He's seen so many things get cleaned up and put to good use that often he finds random items and sees it as treasure.
Warren loves going out to the old machine shed and exploring, or "treasure hunting" as he would put it. One day, he found half of a wooden doorknob. He brought it inside, cleaned it up and could not stop talking about it. He started bringing it with him wherever he went, and I just love that. Something as simple as a doorknob brings out his curiosity, where he thinks about what it is, was and is used for. It feels so familiar to me; this ability to see greatness in things or places that have been abandoned for so long.