Some help through a sad birthday

I’m out of the office today celebrating my 30th birthday. Exactly four years ago on this day, I didn’t have much to celebrate.

I spent the morning of my 26th birthday on the fourth floor of Swanson Hall here at UNMC, in tears. It was 2008.

Just two weeks prior to that day, I was expecting a baby. A miscarriage at seven weeks took away my mother-to-be title. Never having had the chance to share the good news with my family (we were waiting until 12 weeks) I didn’t want to burden them with the bad. So I told a stranger. I told Susan Smith.

As the manager of the Faculty/Employee Assistance Program, Smith is no stranger to sad stories. Miscarriages, along with divorce, sandwich generation parenting struggles, alcohol abuse and financial hardship are all -begrudgingly- on her resume.

She and her colleague, Marlene Schneider, are here on campus to listen, give guidance, listen, give feedback and listen some more to OPP (other people’s problems). Sometimes they are work-related, sometimes not.

As I cried that day, Susan passed me a tissue. Actually, it was a Puffs Plus.

“There’s no cheap stuff here,” she said. “We have that ‘Barbara Walters’ effect on people.”

Everyone’s heard the saying, “Leave work at work, and home at home.”

If it weren’t for that floral couch and Susan Smith, I would’ve kept “home” bottled up, negatively impacting anything I touched at work.

Smith agrees.

“Mentally healthy employees are a more productive workforce,” she said.

While I’ve chosen to share my story with you, Smith reinforces that what is said in her office, stays in her office.

About 7 to 8 percent of the UNMC population utilizes the FEAP services, but that doesn’t mean that’s all who need them.

“Physicians have a hard time asking for assistance,” Smith said. “They think they’re well educated enough that they should be able to take care of things on their own, or that they don’t have the time, but they are not immune.”

I sat down with Smith about three times. Each time, I needed fewer Puffs. Smith said most employees schedule between one to five sessions. Some schedule occasional “tune-ups” so to speak.

If the person needs more counseling, Smith makes referrals.

The next time I contacted Susan, it wasn’t to schedule an appointment. I e-mailed her the following:

…”It brings tears to my eyes to think about that sad time in my life, but I’m writing to share my good news with you. My husband and I are expecting a baby girl any day now…..I just felt compelled to tell you my happy news since you were there for me during one of the hardest, not-so-happy times in my life. I know it’s technically your job to listen and counsel people at UNMC, but I truly felt that you cared and empathized with my situation and for that I am very grateful.”

When I came back from maternity leave that fall, I wanted Susan to meet my little girl, Faith. She hears so many sad stories, I wanted mine to end happily.

So why am I telling this now? Well, I want our campus community to know this service is available. That it doesn’t make you weak if you use it. And that it can help. It’s OK to cry if you go…they have soft tissues…er, Puffs.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call Smith at 559-5323 or Schneider at 559-5175.

M1 Caleb Baber: Unbroken stride

Hear the story of Caleb Baber, M1, and it’s tough to fight the lump in your throat: How he was shocked with 69,000 volts and almost died; how he spent 59 days in a burn unit and lost both legs just below the knees … and then made a mission trip to India, ran a 5K on prosthetics, went snowboarding, enrolled in the latest med school class at UNMC.

He survived it all and came out the other side, still running – it’s inspiring. But he doesn’t see himself as a symbol:

“Becoming a physician defines me much more than being a double amputee.”

Caleb Baber surrounded by kids on a mission trip to India in 2009. He hadn’t yet received his second prosthetic leg.

A calling

He hadn’t held a lifelong goal of becoming a doctor. But after a while, it kept coming back to him. He kept hearing what he called a “still, small voice.”

Baber is a deeply religious young man. He feels compelled to act after watching the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” He’s gone to India to embrace those called untouchable.

On a pivot, he went hard into pre-med.


But on a hike, he scaled an unmarked tower, in a forest in Tennessee in the midst of his undergrad, in 2008. He doesn’t remember much more.

Then pain, uncertainty, multiple surgeries, hoping his digestion system might someday work again. Stops and starts. First steps.

“It’s weird, the fear you develop when you don’t do something for yourself, even for two months,” Baber said. He remembers the darkness. He remembers that fear.

But the rehab pictures on his comeback blog show nothing but grins.

One of Caleb’s favorite quotes is from Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” Caleb insists he still has feet in his shoes — though of course here, he’s obviously wearing sandals.

Power of love

He had to put on an artificial limb for the first time and stand on it, nobody else. He made the lonesome, final call to cut off his legs.

But people who loved him were there for him. They didn’t even realize what that meant to him. He could do anything, alone, because he knew he did nothing alone.

“Those were the things that carried me through,” he said, “and gave me the strength and the will to do the painful things.”

Hold on

Every doctor knows the value of support systems. But how many really know?

Baber knows the days he thought he might die; and the day he walked again, on new legs.

“There’s going to be lots of run-of-the-mill stuff in my life as a physician,” he said. “But there will be times of being able to talk to someone and say with absolute confidence, and some pretty solid evidence, ‘You can make it through this.’ ”

A tired Caleb takes a break during a mountain hike.

All hail the EVS staff!

“Approve and Post.”

The phrase dominated my Monday as I clicked that option nearly 200 times in the UNMC Today database for comments our employees made on the UNMC Today story about an EVS appreciation contest.

The contest – held in recognition of National Healthcare Environmental Services Week – was simple. Employees were asked to name and say a few kind words about their favorite EVS workers.  The EVS worker who generated the most comments would win the contest and get a $30 gift card to the Midtown crossing eatery, Crave.

Tomas Vizcaya-Landaverde generated more than 40 comments from UNMC employees who love the work he does for them.

Tomas Vizcaya-Landaverde – an Environmental Services employee who works on the fourth-floor of the Medical Science Building – received more than 40 comments/votes to win the contest.

The comments that Vizcaya-Landaverde generated alone would have made Monday’s item the “most commented-on” story in the history of UNMC Today.

But then more than 150 others commented, too.

This is our Zonia. She’s the best. We don’t care what you all say.

Me personally, I voted for Craig Lainson and Zonia Nazaruk, who totally kick butt up here in the 4230 Building. My coworkers and I can’t see how any other EVS workers even compare to Zonia and Craig.

But one look at the infinite scroll of comments shows that you all feel the same way about your office’s EVS workers, too.

To be honest, I was thrilled to have my Monday plans washed away by the steady stream of Outlook notices that told me more people had more nice things to say about the EVS workers who do so much to make our work lives better.

It was one of my favorite days as editor of UNMC Today, actually.

We’ll do more this week to recognize our EVS staff but if you get a chance today, take a look at the comments from Monday’s story.

Furthermore, if you see any of the EVS workers who were lauded in there, bring them over to your desk and let them see what people said about them.

They work hard and they deserve to know how we feel about them.