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Dr. Polly Parsons' Acceptance Speech at the ATS Women's Luncheon

November 2006

It is my pleasure to introduce this month's guest editor, Dr. Polly E. Parsons, recipient of the 2006 Elizabeth A. Rich, MD award. Dr. Parsons is Director of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Chief of Critical Services and Chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of Vermont. Coincidentally, she was also highlighted in the Who's Who section of the October issue of ATS news. Her commitment and dedication to trainees and the ATS is exemplified by her serving as Chair of the ATS Training Committee. She has graciously provided Career Talk a text version of her acceptance speech given at the ATS Women's Luncheon held earlier this year in San Diego.

Dr. Polly Parsons

"When I was first notified that I had been chosen to be the recipient of the Elizabeth A. Rich M.D. award at ATS I was thrilled, amazed and honored. When I was asked if I could speak briefly when I received the award at the Women’s luncheon I was panicked. Although I am not known for being reluctant to speak up on most topics, speaking about myself is not something I do well.

I chose the title “Evolution” because I realized that word defined what had happened to me as I have “grown up” in the world of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. I graduated from college at the peak of the “you can have it all” era for women. Having it all really meant everything: a career, a family, glamour and happiness. The glamour aspect should have been the tip off for me. Although I intellectually realized that Wonder Woman didn’t truly exist, I emotionally wanted her to exist. So, I entered medicine with the “I can have it all” attitude. Unfortunately, no one had readied the rest of the world for me and there were adjustments made on all sides. In the early days of my career my favorite article was “How to Swim with Sharks: a Primer” attributed to Voltaire Cousteau in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 1973.  My favorite quote was “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did- but she did it backwards and in high heels.” When I look at what is now on my bulletin board I realize how much I have evolved.  My favorite articles are now “If I had my Life to Live Over Again “ by Nadine Stair   and “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum.  My favorite saying now is “the Chinese symbol for crisis is also the symbol for opportunity”. After a particularly trying day at work I was ranting and raving when my husband told me about the Chinese symbol with duel meanings. I have to confess that my first response was not a gracious one. It was more of a verbal assault that included the words “trite” and “you don’t understand”. Now, however, I actually use notepads that I had made with the symbol in the upper left hand corner!

I have not evolved in isolation. Over the years I have gotten tremendous support and advice from friends, family, colleagues, mentors, and students. The most important pieces of advice have been:

  1. Drink coffee: for years there was a cartoon given to me by a colleague on my bulletin board that showed two women sitting on a fence talking. One asks the other what she plans to do when she grows up and she responds that she plans to be Superwoman. She elaborates on this plan which includes owning a business, running for congress, running triathalons, etc, etc, etc.. When she is asked how she will do that she say “I’ll drink lots of coffee”.
  2. Have friends: in the comic above the other woman doesn’t say “You’re nuts!” she says “good luck”. Friends let you have dreams and be yourself.
  3. If you marry, marry well: this has been attributed to Jeanine Wiener-Kronish MD and it is an important piece of advice. Relationships are partnerships. I am incredibly fortunate to be married to someone who understands and lives that philosphophy. We both have careers, we both love being parents and we both hate to clean the bathrooms but we share equally in the best and the worst of life.
  4. The book “House of God” is not a training manual for physicians
  5. Learn to say yes and no: all of us have incredible opportunities – and often there just isn’t enough time. Learning to say yes to things we don’t really want to do but should is hard but even harder is saying no to things we desperately want to do but just can’t. There are limited hours in a day and coffee can only keep us awake for so many of them. Leaning when and how to say no was a valuable lesson – if only I didn’t have to relearn it on a regular basis.
  6. Returning phone calls at 10 pm isn’t a sign that you have made it:
  7. Childcare is everything: being a parent is the best part of my life. I have been incredibly fortunate to have dedicated, caring child care providers who have been a part of a major part of my children’s lives. Without those women I could not have had a career. Knowing that my children are safe, cared for and loved makes leaving them for work or occasionally missing a soccer game tolerable.
  8. Get a life- and keep it:
  9. Buy a lot of suits: Sharon Rounds, MD said this at a previous Womens’ luncheon and it came back to me when I looked in my closet for something to wear for this occasion. I wished I had heeded her advice sooner.
  10. Remember, it is a privilege to be able to ask and answer questions.
  11. Fortunately, perfect balance and perfection aren’t required for success.
  12. There is nothing wrong with the words “I don’t know”.

In the spring of 2000 I left the University of Colorado to become the Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Vermont. In Colorado we had a started regular, informal gatherings of the women fellows and faculty in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. The group had a going away party for me and they gave me several gifts to help me with my new leadership role. The last gift they gave me was a magic wand. It is pink, it has sparkling lights and when you strike something with it, it makes a tinkling sound. It is everything a fairy princess would want in a wand. Although I had long ago realized that I wasn’t going to be Wonder Woman and I knew that I wasn’t likely to be a fairy princess, the gift said something else: sometimes there aren’t answers, you just need magic!"