Friday, March 28, 2014

Nancy Smith

Nancy Smith was a stay-at-home mom then a teacher, a hospital volunteer and a full- time hospital employee when she decided to follow her calling and retrain as a hospital chaplain. She was the chaplain at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Hospital for almost a decade.  She was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1998 but through her studies and her work in multi-faith situations, she moved beyond the confines of the church to work in spiritual healing in its widest sense. She has been married to Joe since 1967 and has two children, Jennifer and Michael and two grandchildren, Ben and Clare.

What’s your story, Nancy?
I am a fourth generation Houstonian and I feel like I have followed a thread of learning my whole life. One of my great-grandparents on my father’s side traveled to Kansas in a covered wagon as a child and then came to Houston. She had one child and after she was divorced, she became the Dean of Jeff Davis High School even though she hadn't had a college education.  When she retired, she went to the University of Houston even though she was in her late seventies. So to me being a lifelong learner is something that has always been in my family and I just never thought of it as unusual.

My own path was really chosen for me, I wasn't the one who chose it. Like all of us, we have circumstances that happen which turn out to be fortuitous. I had grown up the granddaughter of a physician and though I thought I might be a nurse – I would have been Nurse Nancy! – I actually majored in education.  I was a stay-at-home mom until the mid-1980s doing all sorts of volunteer work with the kids like scouting and with the church. 

I went back into teaching when there was a bad economic turn and my husband was struggling to hold on to his real estate business, but I soon realized what I wanted to do was work for MD Anderson, the cancer hospital here in Houston.  I had been volunteering there for many years and had just spent two weeks as a summer camp counselor at Camp Star Trails with MD Anderson kids who were being treated for cancer. It was just a fabulous experience and the spirit of MD Anderson just called me.  So I resigned from my teaching job and was lucky enough to get a job there as a Patient Care Coordinator. We would meet a new patient when they first arrived, escort them around and show them the ropes. We were there to help them and to walk alongside them throughout their time in the hospital. So I got to meet so many well people whose bodies were not so well, and it seemed to me like the person kept getting “weller and weller"!

I realized then that we are all on such a spiritual journey. It had broadened my life so much to see people who had come from all over the world, patients and healthcare professionals, people who had taken such different paths from mine. One time I looked up at a Code Team – the team that comes from all over the hospital to perform CPR – and of this team there was not one face that was the same color as the one next to it, or even from the same religious tradition.  The sense of strong human spirit there totally amazed me, So I decided that I really wanted to support people's spirituality as they go through life.

To me, religion is humankind's way of making sense of life and the spirit which provides it so I began going to seminary at night after I worked all day. My sweet family didn't mind. I would get up at 4am and write my papers for my next class that night and a kind woman at work would type them for me.  I took three years of seminary over ten years and I just knew that there was a thread for me to keep following. I could see it in the scriptures I was reading or in whatever theology I was studying and I could see it come to life in people. It sent me on a journey that went deeper into the church and then it took me away from the church again.

I struggled with the church as an institutional structure and the way that people believe in literalism. It seemed to me that for them faith became such a limiting factor.  Take healing, for example since that’s what I was all about.  In the Bible there are stories of healings. You can take them literally and it won't ever apply to your life because you can't really believe that could happen to you. But what if you see the metaphorical ways that healing happens, like the concept of resurrection?  When you see over and over again people being borne up from the ashes of what they have experienced, you realize that if you believe it too literally, it keeps the truth of it at a distance. It was good for me not only to intellectualize all this but also to integrate what I was learning with what I was experiencing at MD Anderson.

I have had people say to me, "So, what are you?" Well, I went to four different seminaries. I graduated from the Houston Graduate School of Theology, which is a Quaker seminary, because it's here in Houston. I couldn't pick up and go to another location because my family was here and my job was here. I also took lots of classes at Perkins, the Methodist seminary and even at the Catholic seminary.  I actually took one class at Houston Baptist University but discovered that my male peers were not open to women and it felt very oppressive, maybe not from the professors, but from certainly the young men, so that wasn't for me.

My husband and I belonged to a moderate, smaller Baptist Church and there was a wonderful pastor there who believed, as I did, that women could do anything men could do and in the Bible when it said that women don't teach it was more a cultural thing. In 1998, when I was ready to be ordained, he led the church through a study and put me before the church so they could ask about my calling.  When they voted and only four people voted against me from a membership of around 120.  I was so indebted to that beautiful congregation for doing that, but still, four people did leave the church over it.  I know though that it wasn't just good for me, it was good for the church too!

By that time, I was already a practicing chaplain having taken two years of clinical pastoral education. I worked at CanCare and then took on a full-time ministry at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Hospital which was a wonderful experience.  A licensed professional counselor has to go through lots of supervision and if my supervisor, Leanne Rathbun, were in Houston I would nominate her as an Inspiring Houston Woman too. Leanne gave me permission to be messy inside because at that time I felt I knew a lot less than I had known before, and I know even less now than I have ever known. You have all those absolute certainties about life when you're young, in your teens and 20s, but then you start thinking, “Wait, there's more!”  That's what happened to my religion. I could see that there was more and I really wanted little girls in the Baptist Church to know that they could do anything. In fact I wanted little girls everywhere to know that if they follow what's inside, they can “Go for it!”  That for me is what it's all about and teaching and healing are all part of the same thing, part of becoming who you really are.

It has felt rather like coming out of the closet in a way for me because I have hidden it from some people I knew in my previous life as a hospital chaplain or as a church person, because I don't want to disappoint them. But I have moved on and I think I would never call myself a Christian in the traditional exclusive sense anymore because I appreciate that there are different paths of different streams which all come off the same river. I’ve worked out that I can’t use anymore the religious language I used to use, because I know that there is more to it.  I’m not saying that I go through a cafeteria line and choose only what I want, but I feel that we can really expand each other’s understanding of where we came from and where we are going just by listening to each other.

That stood me in good stead in the hospital community because a hospital is a microcosm of the world which is why I love it, and the hospital chapel is not a Christian chapel, it is a place for all to go to.  I was the lead chaplain at Memorial City for almost ten years and in our chapel there was a symbol.  It was a cross.  Now, many of my friends were Jewish, the patients and the volunteers were Jewish and I became very close with a rabbi who is in our area, and they would come and light the Hanukkah candles.  At the time of the Jewish high holy days in September, I wanted to cover that particular symbol so that they could come into the chapel and maybe have a service there. So I went to Hansen Galleries and they gave me a beautiful piece of fabric, a tapestry that was so colorful it looked like a stained glass window. I hung that up over the cross but when it came time to take it down and return it to Hansen Galleries, I felt so uncomfortable about it. It felt like we were putting up Aunty Mable’s picture on the wall just because Uncle Henry was coming to visit, only to take it down again when he left.  I thought this doesn’t feel right. We are acting as if we are the owners of this house and we are not. So I went to my supervisor and we agreed to take down the Christian symbol.  Of course, a lot of people were not happy but another chaplain and I worked with a quilter in Pennsylvania who made us a beautiful quilt to hang there instead.  She told us about why she had put this thread here and that thread there, it was all about the story of life’s journey.
Faces of Faith - by Ed Hankey
We had interfaith services in the chapel and one year when all of the Festivals of Light – Hanukkah, Christmas, Diwali and Ramadan – all overlapped we organized Sharing the Light of our Faith.  People from different faiths brought pictures and other things to hang outside the chapel and I loved it.  Later the volunteers gave us the gift of a sculpture for the niche outside our chapel and I helped design it.  We called it Faces of Faith, a group of men, women and children of different faiths at different ages.  It’s still there although there is a new chapel.

I retired in 2006 because my mother was very ill, so I got to spend some time with my mother at the end of her life and I wouldn't take anything for that.  I didn't go back to the hospital after she died because my father developed Alzheimer's.  That was another little turn in the road, but you know, all along the way, while you are following that thread, I think there is such a responsibility to tell your own truth.   Though you don't want to squash anybody else's truth, I truly believe that there is a built-in salvific force that our creator has put inside us which moves us towards whoever we are. I don't want to put a name to it.  Most people call that creator God but to me, that's a limiting word. Theologian Paul Tillich said that it’s the ‘ground of all being’ and I believe that. I believe it's more than religious language can describe. I wouldn't deny my Christian faith because of course it brought me to where I am. I believe it all but I also believe there’s more.

What advice would you give to someone new to spiritual healing?
Well, whether it’s someone new to teaching or healing, in healthcare, as a mom or as a friend, I would say that you must listen to that still small voice inside, and if something out there isn't congruent with your experiences don't just jump into it. Keep on listening to yourself and to your experience because each of our experiences, every one of them good or bad, is part of our wholeness.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
My husband, Joe, has been my greatest enabler in the best sense of the word. His acceptance and encouragement of my evolution is life giving.  There have been other people too, all along the way, who have influenced me and I lament that I am not in touch with every one of those people still. But we were there for each other, influenced each other and inspired each other even if it was only for that one day or even that one hour.  There were my friends that I ran with, there was my great friend Polly, there were people I worked with at MD Anderson, and there were the patients too.  And there’s Rabbi Rabinowitz and my nephew Blaine who has cerebral palsy.  Really, there are so many of them.

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
When I was younger I ran marathons and even now my physical fitness is very important to me.  So I go over to Trotter YMCA every morning and do my exercises.  That gives my day structure, and I experience the YMCA as a place of great diversity and faithfulness.  I know lots of lovely groups of people over there.  We have a birthday club and on Sundays I go to what I call ‘yoga church’.  It's wonderful!  It's like a ritual for me and it keeps me grounded. There are people in that class from all over the world and it feels just like a beautiful little church for me, with all the people from different places.  I used to be on the board there years ago when the Y set up a Women’s Center because many women don't want to exercise with other people, especially the Muslim women because they have to be dressed. So in the Women's Center they don't have to be. It's a separate space, smaller than the big one and I thought that was just very understanding and empathic, especially for a Christian organization.

Jerusalem International YMCA
I traveled to Israel in November and it was so good. We stayed in Jerusalem in a hotel called the King David Hotel which was absolutely fabulous.  Right across the street was a YMCA housed in a historic building and when you walk in, their mission statement is there on the wall and it says we are a place of peace amidst a time of religious diversity.  It was special to me to come across that.

What does Houston mean to you?
It's a whole different city than it was. The little house I grew up in is long gone.  It was on Norfolk Street and now it’s under Greenway Plaza!  Then we moved out to Briargrove when that was the furthest you could go.  I love when I go to the Heights because that's where my father's family originated and I love going over to the Montrose area because that's where my mother's family came from. I see places that aren't even there anymore, but they're so real in my mind.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
On my patio. On a pretty day I just sit tight there and wherever I look I see green in any direction.

What is your favorite restaurant?
It’s Pondicheri. I love the big breakfast plate because I love the way they balance their tastes. Another place I love is a neighborhood restaurant called Joyce's which has been here forever and ever. It used to be that we would go in there and I would think it was full of old people, and of course, now I'm there! Anyway it's a lovely little retro seafood place.

What is your Houston secret?
One place I love is full of secrets. Glenwood Cemetery was, I believe, the first planned public garden in Houston. People in the 1800s went there for picnics and it is filled with famous and infamous Houstonians and world class sculpture. The monthly tours led by Jim Parsons are really fun and are rich with history and gossip.

If you could change one thing about Houston
I love the vitality of Houston and I love the diversity, but if there's anything I'd change it would be that we could see each other's ‘otherness’ more readily and be more accepting of it.  We should embrace it more than being afraid of it. I love the things that are organized to foster diversity like the festivals in Downtown.

I also think that in this city it is too easy to become isolated. We go to work and we come home and stay there. So I think we all need to make an effort to get out there and meet more people. I would certainly change that about myself.

Nancy Smith was nominated as an Inspiring Houston Woman by Jennifer Enos

Friday, March 14, 2014

Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Rebecca Richards-Kortum is Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University.  She is the co-founder of Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB), a program which challenges undergraduate students to create affordable technologies for use primarily in Third World countries.  Together with her colleague Maria Oden, she was last year awarded the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize and they donated the $100,000 check to the hospital in Africa which inspired the BTB program.  She lives in Houston with her husband, Philip, and their six children.

What’s your story, Rebecca?
I'm on the faculty of Bioengineering at Rice University and I focus primarily on two areas. I work on creating technologies for low-resource settings, primarily with a focus on pediatrics, improving child health and improving maternal health.  I also have other projects which focus on early cancer screening and diagnosis focusing mainly on cervical cancer, head and neck cancer and esophageal cancer. I've been doing cancer imaging reading my whole career, but it was really in the last seven years that I've come to focus on cancer screening in low-resource settings in developing countries.

That means really thinking about how you reduce the cost of screening so that it is affordable for the vast majority of the world at risk from the kind of cancers we deal with so that people can have access to early screening, not just to palliative care when they develop stage four cancer.

I originally studied medical physics and then switched to engineering when I got my first faculty job, but they are similar in many ways, math and science, with a design-oriented focus.  Biomedical engineering does tend to have more women than, say, mechanical or electrical engineer.  When I started teaching electrical engineering, maybe 10% of the students in my cost were women, but now I’m in biomedical engineering, it's closer to 50-50.  In Global Health it’s closer to 90% women which on the one hand is wonderful but on the other hand, it pisses me off!  Is it really just our problem to deal with poverty and social injustice and making the world a better place? I think we need more balance on both sides.

Why do you do what you do?
In 2005, I went to Malawi and met a really unbelievable pediatrician, Dr Elizabeth Molyneux, who has been in Malawi her whole career. She was the one who really inspired me to think about how we could get undergraduate students to look at new at ways to address needs in the hospital nursery, especially for premature babies.

From that meeting, my partner Maria Oden and I created Beyond Traditional Borders, which is a minor in Global Health Technologies where we bring students from all over campus – humanities and social sciences as well as engineering and science – and we give them real design challenges. They start with an introductory eight-week design project and then a one-semester project and then a whole year. After each of those projects they have the opportunity to apply for a summer internship where they take the thing that they have created to the place which had originally proposed the challenge for them to solve. During these internships, they get wonderful feedback and although most of the time it's “You need to change this many things before it's useful to us”, for the students it's incredibly motivating.  They get to go and experience first-hand the real challenges that they've only learned about it in a classroom setting.  When they come back, they are so motivated they will often do independent study work to further their technology to get it to the point where it actually can be used clinically.

For example, premature babies often have breathing difficulties.  Here in Houston, it would easily be treated with technology called CPAP – continuous positive air pressure.  It’s very simple, if you think of a baby's lungs as a balloon. In our lungs we have surfactant which helps the balloon of our lungs stay inflated but with premature babies they lack surfactant so when they breathe the lungs collapse. Every breath for them is like that first puff into a balloon and they get exhausted just by breathing. With CPAP, you just put little silicone rubber prongs into the baby’s nose and the machine blows in a mix of air and oxygen so that when the baby breathes, instead of the balloon collapsing, it stays open and the hard work of breathing is greatly reduced.  For most premature babies, if they are on CPAP for a week or two they develop surfactant and are fine, but if they don't have access to a CPAP machine, the mortality rate is as high as 75%.

The challenge that Dr Molyneux gave us was to develop an affordable CPAP machine. Here in the US, the cheapest CPAP machine will cost you around $6,000 which might well have been $6 million for her in Malawi because it was just not affordable. In response to this problem, our 2010 team of students developed a prototype which delivered airflow and pressure comparable to the one they use at Texas Children's Hospital. But our machine was made with fish aquarium pumps and cost only $150!  Since then we have been able to prove that it does improve survival.  Mortality rates went from 75% down to 35%, which is comparable to the rates in the United States when CPAP was first introduced.

Now we are working to roll it out across the whole country and I am working to put together a complementary package of technologies that will do all the things that babies need – keeping them warm and hydrated, keeping their glucose levels where they need to be and, if they have jaundice, treating them with phototherapy.

When we have a project we think will be successful, we make the first few prototypes in our lab so it can be taken for clinical evaluation.  We work with colleagues at a wonderful industrial design firm called 3rd Stone Design who have helped us find appropriate manufacturing partners to bring the CPAP device to market.  We are also in very early conversations with some multinational corporations that have the capability to undertake the international distribution we would really need. So we are not there yet, but I feel that we are on a really positive path to get to the point where it could be more widely available. We also just received from grant from Glaxo Smith Kline and Save the Children which will allow us to expand to Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa, so we are super excited by that.

Maria Oden (left) and Rebecca Richards-Kortum 
at Rice University's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen in Houston
Image by Jeff Fitlow
Last year, Maria Oden and I were honored to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize for our work with Beyond Traditional Boundaries.  Even more wonderful was that it came with the prize of $100,000 and we were able to donate that money to the Central Hospital in Malawi, the hospital which inspired our program and the CPAP project.   When you go to the ward, there aren't enough beds for the babies so it is not uncommon to find sixty babies in twenty beds.  There’s also not enough space for moms so they can't be with their babies all the time and that's not good for the moms or for the babies. We have been able to raise another $275,000 in additional donations which will allow them to expand the nursery which is very exciting.  We have the architectural plans and they will be breaking ground as soon as rainy season is done.  If everything goes according to schedule, it will be completed in December 2014. That's going to be a happy day - walking in see that!  And of course, the new nursery will have our CPAP machines and hopefully many other technologies which will be created through our program.

What is your Houston story?
I grew up in Nebraska and went to the University of Nebraska, and then I went to MIT for graduate school and from there I went to University of Texas in Austin where I was on the faculty of electrical-engineering and also biomedical engineering. I had been there about 16 years when I moved to Rice in Houston in 2005. 

The main reason to move was that there was no medical school in Austin, at least there wasn't then.  For people like me who do the kind of translational research in which you are doing clinical evaluations of technologies, it’s really difficult without a medical school so we would be driving to Houston every week.  When a job opened up at Rice, it seemed like an amazing opportunity.

At home I have six kids from aged twenty-two down to aged four.  I have three boys and three girls. Alex and Max are both at college, one at Rice and one at the University of Houston.  They're both studying engineering which is wonderful and makes me so happy!  Then Zach is in high school and he wants to do either architecture or civil engineering. Kate is in middle school, Elizabeth is in second grade and finally, Margaret is in pre-school.
We adopted Elizabeth and Margaret from Ethiopia. Margaret has been with us since 2010 when she was six months old and Elizabeth was about to turn seven when she came to us in 2012.

I love being a mom, it's just an amazing experience and when you travel in Africa you see a lot of kids that don't have parents and who are living in orphanages.  We felt that we had more room in our family so we looked at the various adoption programs and decided that at that time Ethiopia was really the only program in Africa that we felt was an ethical program. Maggie was only a baby and therefore had a very easy transition, but when Elizabeth arrived with us, she had perhaps only twenty words of English. She is so brave though and it's really amazing to think of all the uncertainty that she's been through. She was born in an area of Ethiopia where they speak Wollayta and when she came into care she was placed in an orphanage in Addis Ababa where they speak Amharic. She was only about four at that time and there was only one other little girl who spoke the same language as she did. Then she came home with us and had to learn yet another completely new language.

Adopting an older child is a very challenging but wonderful experience and it's very different from adopting an infant. I thought I knew that going in, but really I didn't really know it at all! Much as you try to be prepared, you can't really know how challenging, but also how great, it can be. I think Elizabeth is not yet fully settled but she has made so much progress. The difference for her between starting first grade and starting second grade was enormous. She's absorbing English day to day, but we have hired wonderful Rice student teachers who come and work with her on her homework every day after school.  They are just amazing with her and they have energy at that time of day that I definitely do not have!

Because of the work I do, I have to spend lot of time out in the field with the student interns, looking for new challenges and checking that they're doing the right thing as far as getting feedback on their implementation. So I usually have to do four trips abroad each year – to Africa to see them but also to meet with those in China involved in our cervical cancer project and in India with our esophageal cancer project.  So I do end up with too many frequent flyer miles – that's such a badge of shame, right?

So I’m lucky to have beside me my husband Philip, who is awesome.  He's also at Rice in the faculty of Psychology. We actually met living in the dorm in our freshman year in Nebraska. I lived on the second floor and he lived on the third floor so I've known him since I was 17.  As our careers progressed, Philip and I have made decisions together as much as possible. When we moved to Austin, he had the opportunity to go back and get his PhD which he really wanted to do and then he got his dream job in Austin so it worked out pretty well. Then when we came here, he moved from industry into the academic job at Rice.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
Definitely it's my kids. Because so much of what I do is focused on trying to help moms have the opportunity to bring their kids home, and anybody who has had a baby knows how much you worry, being a mom myself has definitely influenced the projects that I've chosen.

What advice would you give to someone new to your field?
I think the most important career advice is to think about where you find meaning. If you are going to work hard, you want to work hard at something that you find meaningful.  Worry less about what ladder you want to climb and just try to figure where something you find meaningful can intersect with career opportunities. 

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
That's the eternal challenge, no?  Well, we take it a day at the time. The hardest thing about having six kids is making sure that they get enough one-on-one time with you. Somebody is always having a crisis, so you have to make sure that you're not getting so absorbed in that crisis that other people are either being neglected or feeling neglected. Even with the two older boys at college, you know they never really leave you! That's a big myth, I think, but it's great that they still need you and want your help.

What time do I get for me? I get up early and that's my time. I like to run and so I do that in the morning. I can't stay up late but I can get up early.

What does Houston mean to you?
What really drew me to Houston professionally was the Medical Center and the opportunity to work with physicians that are providing patient care and are also trying to bring the next set of advances in patient care.

On a personal level, although Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, where we live feels much more like a small community. We really love it here.

Where is your happy place?
My happy place has to be looking at an empty email in-box.  Some days I think all I do is answer email.

What is your favorite restaurant?
My favorite place to eat in Houston has to be the taco truck beside the Alabama Ice House – it has the best tacos in Houston! It might look a little sketchy but it's very good.

What is your Houston secret?
I think Houston's best kept secrets are the public schools. They are awesome. There are many very talented teachers, especially in the magnet schools and high schools. We have had two kids at DeBakey High School, and one at the High School for the Performing and Visual arts and both schools offer really great experiences. Mr. Smith, who was until this year the band director at Pershing Middle School, was an amazing resource and of course Mark Twain Elementary is really an extraordinary school.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
I would make it Austin – but without the cedar! I do miss the beauty of Austin. Houston is pretty in its own way, but it's not as pretty as Austin.

For more information about Rebecca’s work with Beyond Traditional Borders, visit the Rice 360º website