Paying The Toll Man

I’ve only been in graduate school for roughly 10 weeks, but it’s felt like forever. I knew it’d be difficult, but I never realized that it’s actually possible to be so overwhelmed that you’d settle for just being busy.

Willingly Getting on a Rollercoaster

I didn’t sign up for THIS version of graduate school, but in more than one way, I have to say it’s been overwhelmingly positive and necessary. Somehow, I’ve made friends, presented on a topic, moved to a new city, and even put together a desk (it was in nearly 50 pieces)! My peers/colleagues, mentors, and professors are arguably the nicest people I’ve encountered in academia, and on top of that, they’re open-minded, unique, and intellectual.

While all of that is true, it hasn’t been an easy 10 weeks, but I’m grateful for that as well.

The Cost of “Care”

A few weeks before graduate school orientation, I traveled to Birmingham to finally sign the dotted line on my first apartment, and I brought my mother along. I was bursting with excitement until she slipped and fell (breaking her leg - a fracture that wouldn’t be found until many weeks later.) This was the beginning of a downward spiral for her health, and she ultimately suffered a debilitating stroke 5 weeks ago.

The decline of her health has been enough to handle, especially for her to go from an independent person to someone who needs help doing nearly everything. What has made that more difficult is the “care” she has or hasn’t received. The entire process of getting her into a rehab facility to getting her into a long-term care facility has been like pulling teeth. Every day presents a new challenge of battling insurance companies, sometimes spending hours just to get connected to a hospital’s nursing station, discussing options with social workers, trying to communicate with case managers, ensuring the appropriate people have the information, etc. Why does the family member have to drive that process along at all?

That’s not even mentioning the mistreatment she faced at different times or even belittling by caregivers which is all compounded by the reality of a pandemic. For example, I could not get into one of the facilities to see her at all (no visitation due to COVID-19) so I drove to the facility and parked in front of it. Then, I called maybe 20 times in a row just to hear her voice after not being able to know how her discharge went.

That has all culminated into her currently being faced with unenrolling from an insurance company so that she can recieve better care. What a mess all around, but things have gotten better and will improve. I have to believe that.

The Cost of “Success”

With all of that going on, I had to learn very quickly how to compartmentalize what was happening to my mother. One benefit of remote learning is that I can learn anywhere! That enabled me to spend a few weeks at home and have the opportunity to travel to and fro without major consequences. I’m thankful for that. However, graduate school courses are no joke.

In my graduate school program, first year students must take core classes that are 5 weeks per course. Each week there is a homework assignment and quiz. I think it’s better to refer to the quizzes as tests, but it’s kind of nice to make your brain think it’s only a quiz. One perk is that once Friday (quiz day) is over, you have an opportunity to decompress a bit since the next week’s material is not available until Sunday night.

On top of coursework, there are lab rotations in which you spend 9 weeks in a lab to evaluate whether the lab is a good fit for you in terms of mentorship style, peers, techniques, and topics. This is essentially the real “work” of graduate school. You’re tasked with finding a lab to make your home which is no easy feat, especially during a pandemic in which some labs are mostly remote and other labs discourage too much time in the lab (which is ironic if you’ve ever done scientific research).

Needless to say, I haven’t slept much between working on my rotation project and studying for Genetics and Biochemistry, but there’s always some price to pay to get what you want, right? In a stark contrast, there’s always some price to pay when the healthcare system is warped in the way it is. Luckily, I’ve had a tremendous amount of support along this journey so far.

So I guess I’ll continue to pay the toll man in hopes that maybe one day I’ll have paid my dues in this game of life.

Now, let me go study…

Shaurita D. Hutchins

Shaurita D. Hutchins

Graduate Student Trainee

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