How the PR department “pulled one over” on Tom O’Connor

toeditUNMC’s Tom O’Connor and his wife, Karen
I found out a month ago that Tom O’Connor, senior associate director in public relations here at UNMC, was chosen to receive the “Special Achievement in Public Relations” award at the PRSA Nebraska gala on Dec. 4

But there was one caveat. Organizers wanted it to be a surprise. Our department had to keep it a secret from Tom (gasp!). Keeping a secret from Tom is like playing Santa. You have to work behind the scenes and be sneaky, though no long, white beard is required.

When I asked a colleague for ideas on how to get Tom to the awards ceremony without him realizing why, she had two words for me: “He’ll know.”

 But we were a determined bunch. After some conspiring with our PR director, Bill O’Neill, we decided to tell Tom the department won an award and we needed him to accept it.

 Yes, that would do, or so we thought. Tom agreed to go, but wasn’t satisfied with our story. Being the investigative journalist type, he continued to ask for details. Details that didn’t exist. After all, this was a made-up award.

 Enter an e-mail from Bill.

 “The next e-mail that I send out will be a complete fabrication so that Tom O. will quit asking me about the award. Remember, it is Tom who is actually receiving the award for his service to the PR profession.”

 And that next e-mail from Bill:

 “Found out yesterday that the award we will receive tonight is for “Outstanding Public Relations on behalf of a non-profit” … Thanks to Tom, Lisa, Vicky and Nicole for representing our department at the PRSA gala tonight. Great job, all!”

 As for the relentless questioning from Tom about who nominated us and why, we all played dumb and it seemed to work (not sure if this is necessarily a good thing).

 The biggest coup was getting his wife, Karen, to attend without giving anything away. Her having attended 3,472 of these types of events over the years, we knew that she would normally prefer to pass. But this wasn’t just another dinner. This was one in which her husband would be receiving a Grammy for PR.

 Bill called to clue her in at the last minute, giving her the scoop that it was actually Tom, not our department, who would be honored. While he was on the phone with Karen, Tom walked in the room. Bill quickly hung up. He covered by telling Tom there was now an extra seat at our table and asked if Karen could fill it. Figuring she wouldn’t want to go, he called her anyway.

 And this is when Karen put on an Academy Award-winning performance. She moaned and groaned and even threw in some colorful language for good measure. Karen knew that if she said yes right away it would be obvious something was up, so reluctantly she agreed to go. It was exactly what sold Tom on the idea that this was a general awards dinner.

 Fast forward to that night. During the cocktail hour, Tom still wasn’t satisfied with our vague description of what we were winning and questioned me again. My response: “I think it’s an award of merit…or maybe excellence…Bartender, more wine please!”

 Later, Tom, Karen, Vicky, Lisa Spellman and I took our places at the table. They began to announce award winners and UNMC’s name was never called. I wondered when Tom would start to get suspicious, but he didn’t until the moment they read his bio from the podium.

 “…36 years of media relations experience….. credible, friendly and reliable….helps place more than 2,000 UNMC media hits per year.”

 Tom turned to his wife and said: “I think they’re talking about me.” With a huge grin on her face, Karen replied, “They ARE!”

 Tom stood, and sheepishly walked to the podium. First one person stood, and then another, then a few more and finally the whole room rose to their feet and applauded everyone’s favorite media relations guy. T.O. received a standing ovation. On his way back to the table, it got quiet for a second. Someone then started a second round of applause. It was a special moment to be a part of.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, it was clear Tom never suspected a thing. I believe he uttered something like, “Ya got me.”

 Ever the PR man, Tom sent a gracious email around the next morning.

 “It was a great honor for me. But, I say this in total sincerity, I owe it all to UNMC and the great people I have been lucky to work with in PR. You make me look way better than I really am. Way better.”

 And that, my friends, is the story of how the PR Department “pulled one over” on our very own Tom O’Connor.

Putting off vision care leads to (surprise!) impaired vision

When you’re having problems with your eyesight, there are probably worse places to work than on a university campus that has just opened a state-of-the-art eye care facility.

And I’ve always had problems with my eyes.

Staring down the business end of the laser. (Photos by Kalani Simpson)

Staring down the business end of the laser. (Photos by Kalani Simpson)

I remember when I first realized my eyes were bad. I was an entertainment reporter for a small newspaper in upstate New York, and I’d been sent to review an opera.

To help the uncultured, the opera was translated via subtitles. As the mezzosoprano belted out the Italian aria, an English translation ran across a thin screen hanging high above the stage.

The problem? I couldn’t read a word. And no one around me was having any trouble at all.

To that point, I’d never realized I had a vision problem. Sure, things got blurry in the distance, but at some point, doesn’t everything? I never knew that my definition of “too far to see” was much closer than a normal person’s.

Still, no long-term effects. I got a pair of glasses, spent a week or so marveling at how crisp the lettering on stop signs was, and life went on.

Many years later, I was put on prednisone for a medical condition. The drug did what it was supposed to do, and I was pleased – but apparently, one of the possible side effects of prednisone is that it can cause cataracts.

The laser wasn't as frightening as I thought it would be. (Photos by Kalani Simpson)

The laser wasn’t as frightening as I thought it would be. (Photos by Kalani Simpson)

I began to realize something was wrong the following summer, when it became increasingly hard to see people’s expressions clearly — especially if they were facing me with bright sunshine behind them. (It was a problem most common in the late afternoon.) A trip to an ophthalmologist showed that I had what the doctor described as “classic” cataracts.

So two cataract removals later (I’m counting one per eye), I was fitted with a pair of trifocals and sent on my merry way, once more able to ascertain whether people were smiling at me after 4 p.m.

Oh, it wasn’t a perfect situation. To remove the cataracts, they also had to replace the lenses in my eyes.

I wouldn’t have cared, because quite frankly I was beginning to feel that my eyes had been letting down the team through the years – but in one area, they’d always been perfect.

There was a point of focus maybe two feet in front of me, right about the place you’d hold a book, where my vision had never wavered. But as a result of the surgery, that point of focus was lost. Now, to read, I would have to wear glasses. (And I read a lot.)

Dr. Gulati takes a photo of my repaired left eye.

Dr. Gulati takes a photo of my repaired left eye.

Still, I’m nothing if not adaptable. And the advent of Kindle, with its adjustable type sizes, has made reading super easy. So my eyes and I were going along quite nicely together, although let’s face it, I no longer trusted them.

Fast forward to this past year, when I began working at UNMC (and receiving health care here), and you find me interviewing a medical student about the VISION Clinic. In the course of the interview, we talked about how people often put off their vision care.

“They don’t realize how bad it’s getting,” UNMC medical student Matt Maslonka told me. “They don’t realize that their field of vision is shrinking until they start walking into things.”

Oh, (insert expletive here). As my colleague Elizabeth Kumru – who has a corner cubicle — can tell you, I walk into things constantly – particularly her cubicle as I’m turning the corner. I used to consider this a result of my preoccupation with deep and meaningful thoughts, such as “Is anyone ordering Jimmy John’s today?” Now, I was wondering if my evil eyes were letting me down again.

Stanley M. Truhlsen, M.D., right, and Dorothy Truhlsen

Stanley M. Truhlsen, M.D., right, and Dorothy Truhlsen

So, you may not have heard, but UNMC has this really big, really new Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute, with state-of-the-art equipment and internationally known ophthalmologists and all sorts of cool stuff.

Even though I hadn’t had my initial eye surgery at UNMC, I decided to amble over to the new building one afternoon to see if our UNMC ophthalmologists could tell me what was going on.

The verdict: My left eye had some buildup – “capsular haze” was the term the doctor used – on the lens. Apparently, when you have cataract surgery at a young age, it’s common for the eye to try to repair itself even though a new lens is already in place. Laser surgery would be needed to clear away the gunk that had built up behind the lens. Speaking with Vikas Gulati, M.D., who is on the faculty at Truhlsen/UNMC and a glaucoma specialist, and who would be performing the procedure, I got the impression that it would be as easy as squeegeeing slush off a windshield – with lasers!

In reality, it was even easier.

For one thing, it was an outpatient examination, and the “laser-into-my-eyeballs” machine (actual name: Nd:YAG, or neodymium yttrium aluminum garnet laser) looked just like any other eye exam equipment. Dr. Gulati had me look through the machine – why do ophthalmologists always want you to look at their ears? – and a couple of bright flashes later, I was done.

Walking back to the 4230 Building from the Truhlsen Eye Institute, I was amazed at how quickly my vision had improved, and how much.

It was something, I realized, I should have taken care of much sooner. The improvement was almost frightening – just how bad had I let my eyes become?

Maybe this time, my eyes hadn’t let me down – maybe I’d let them down.

It's my M3 and I'll cry if I want to

A few years ago, Oregon Health & Science University Ph.D. candidate Katy Van Hook wrote a blog that struck a nerve. She called it Forget baseball, there is DEFINITELY crying in science.

Van Hook, who has since earned her doctorate, was talking about the fact that she was so stressed out by the life of a student at an academic medical center that she occasionally broke down and bawled in her mentor’s office.

I’ve cried in front of my boss, the director of my graduate program … countless friends, several thesis committee members, and a couple qualifying exam committee members if I’m not mistaken.

It was a brave admission, but the response was cathartic. The comments poured in, saying she was not alone:

first year ohsu grad student here: found myself sobbing alone in the bathroom today after a humiliatingly failed experiment, feeling like my life was unraveling before my eyes – your post really goes a long way to reassure me that maybe I’m still on track after all.

Have you, as a med student or grad student, felt the same way?

Well, chances are, you have, says a study (yes, an actual study!) done by Harvard Medical School, Crying: experiences and attitudes of third-year medical students and interns.

Sixty-nine percent of students and 74 percent of interns self-reported crying for reasons related to medicine. For both, the most common cause was “burnout.” … Seventy-three percent of students and 68 percent of interns thought discussion of physicians’ crying was inadequate.

One of the conclusions was: Trainees want more discussions of crying.

So here we go.

Here’s a blog titled First day in the OR, aka crying in public:

Here’s the confession: I totally cried.

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that someone with more seniority than myself (not hard to achieve that level of seniority, by the way) made a mistake, and it was blamed on me.  And the scrub nurse was not happy. Not happy at all.

So I cried. I was so upset – I knew how unfair it was, and I knew it hadn’t been my fault, but still – someone was yelling at me, and telling me I had done something wrong.

Another blog:

In med school… wow, it happened a lot. After exams, before exams, just randomly in the locker room. I remember during my surgery clerkship, we were having a workshop on tying knots, and one student was having trouble with her knots and burst into tears. I still remember what she said: “I don’t even feel that sad. I’m just SO TIRED.”

So, go ahead. Let it out. You aren’t alone. Take advantage of the resources offered by the Counseling and Student Development Center. And share some of your own “crying in science” stories in the comments. We’ll all feel better.