It could have appeared in the classifieds of Newsday, Long Island’s daily newspaper, or on eBay—had eBay existed. For sale: Men’s suit by Haggar, size 48, purchased at JC Penney for White House ceremony. Never used. Motivated seller.
I neither advertised nor sold the suit. Back then, before business casual, I could always use another suit, but I had purchased that one specifically to wear at the White House for the presidential awarding of the National Medal of Technology
to 10 of the nation’s most renowned inventors and innovators.
Ronald Reagan was president. The awards were to be given on 15 July 1988. Although seating would be limited, I was informed that, as managing editor of Magnetic Resonance News, I was to attend.
It would be a rather auspicious occasion, as any ceremony at the White House is, but the National Medal of Technology (now known as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation) is awarded to a very elite group of inventors and innovators. Three years before, in 1985, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple Computer, were among the first cohort of 12 innovators to receive the award. President Reagan honored them for developing and introducing the personal computer.
In 1988, the cohort I was to witness included Edwin Land (inventor of instant photography, as in Polaroid), David Packard (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard), Robert Dennard (inventor of the single-transistor memory cell, known as the DRAM), and my boss, Raymond Damadian, MD, inventor of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) scanning to detect disease.
After proving in 1971
that NMR could distinguish between cancer tissue and normal tissue, Damadian was issued the world’s first patent for a machine that would use NMR
to scan for cancer, achieved the world’s first whole-body scan—the machine he built to do it, dubbed “Indomitable,” went to the Smithsonian—and founded a company to manufacture the world’s first commercial MRI scanners (still in business and still innovating). Today, in addition to “traditional” MRI depiction of pathology, functional MRI—neuroimaging that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow—continues to break new ground in helping scientists understand how the brain works. But in 1986, when Damadian hired me to create and publish Magnetic Resonance News,
a newspaper to educate physicians on the technology he had invented, MRI was still in its adolescence.
When I learned, two years after taking on my new role, that I was to attend a White House ceremony honoring Damadian, I was excited. Except for TV and print, the closest I had ever come to seeing the president—any U.S. president—was a photo op on a previous trip I had made to Washington. For five dollars, I could have my picture taken with a life-size cardboard cutout of President and Mrs. Reagan, adjacent to the fence that borders the north lawn of the White House. Instead of spending the money for a personal connection, I somewhat surreptitiously snapped a picture of the two-dimensional First Couple, standing next to the enterprising photographer who had arranged for them to be there. So to learn that I would be among those attending the awards ceremony was exciting to contemplate, and soon afterward I bought the suit.
A day or two later, I was informed that the publishing consultant hired to share his wisdom on launching a newspaper had pulled rank on me and would be going to the White House in my stead. Disappointed, I took the bad news philosophically. True, I would not be seeing the president in person. True, my once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend a White House ceremony had been downgraded to probably never in my lifetime. And yes, I now possessed an altered suit that I didn’t really need, but pulling a favorite tool from my box of self-consolations, I told myself things could be worse.
I was right. A year later, market uncertainties triggered by pending federal legislation led to a sharp drop in sales of MRI scanners. Half of the company’s employees were laid off overnight, and publication of Magnetic Resonance News ceased, as did my role as managing editor.
So much of life involves perspective, how one sees things. I’ve learned that perspectives can change in a matter of seconds. They can also change over a significant period of time, as circumstances change. Knowing this to be true has helped me avoid some unfortunate knee-jerk reactions.
The ability to observe accurately and draw valid conclusions is an acquired skill. Nurses are trained to observe, and Florence Nightingale led the way. In her 1898 Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not,
she observed: “The most important practical lesson that can be given to nurses is to teach them what to observe—how to observe—what symptoms indicate improvement—what the reverse—which are of importance—which are of none—which are the evidence of neglect—and of what kind of neglect.”
Journalists are also taught to observe carefully for the sake of drawing accurate conclusions, and over the years, I’ve gained some insights that, though probably not original with me, have been part of me for so long that they seem like my own. I offer them here for your consideration.
1. It’s how you see what you see that determines what you see. And there’s a corollary: It’s how you see what you don’t see that determines what you see.
Recently, my wife and I watched the movie “The Magic of Belle Isle.”
Finnegan O’Neil, a 9 ½ year old girl, tells her neighbor Monte Wildhorn (played by Morgan Freeman), a burned-out, alcohol-dependent author of Western novels, that she wants to know where stories come from and offers him $34.18 cash if he will teach her how to write stories. His first assignment? “Look out there and tell me what’s not there. And make me interested.” Despite her protests about what seems an impossible task, he refuses to proceed with additional lessons until she completes that one successfully.
Daniel J. Pesut, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN, past president of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, wrote awhile back about seeing what others do not in his RNL
blog post “Take off the blinders!”
“Failure to gain insight,” he observed, “is often characterized by lack of experience,a passive stance, concrete reasoning, and adherence to flawed beliefs. Gaining insights requires experience, an active stance, playful reasoning, and a willingness to question long-held assumptions and beliefs.”
Be ready for what happens next, though, because when you take that fateful step and question those past assumptions, you may find yourself on a path from which there is no exit. That’s what happened to Raymond Damadian when he envisioned what had never been conceived before—use of an already discovered scientific phenomenon known as nuclear magnetic resonance to depict soft tissue in the human body. It was a new perspective from which he couldn’t escape. As he told me: “Once you get a strong idea, you can become its prisoner. When the idea is compelling enough, it can be difficult to evade its allure. It seems to repeatedly force itself into consciousness to remind you of your failure to act” (Mattson & Simon, 1996, p. 651).
2. Little things affect how you look at the big picture, and foreground gives dimension to background. Often, things other than what you’re looking at determine how you see what you’re viewing. Any skilled photographer will tell you foreground is important. Remove it, and you lose perspective. A small bush in the foreground puts a majestic mountain in perspective, adding dimension and interest.
We watched another movie recently, “Take Me Home,”
featuring Thom Colvin, an out-of-work New York photographer who owns a used taxi and sometimes illegally uses it to earn some money—and Claire Barrow, whose estranged father in California has suffered a heart attack. Desperate to reconnect with her father before he dies and unaware that Thom’s taxi service is not legit, she asks him to drive her from New York to California, and he reluctantly agrees. As they near the end of their cross-country trek, marooned in a desert surrounded by mountains, Thom asks Claire, “Can I take your picture?” Photo-shy Claire refuses, asking, “Why can’t you just take it without me?” and Thom responds, “Because without you in the picture, it’s a flat shot. It’s like a postcard.”
To make his point, he hands the camera to Claire, instructing her to point it toward the mountains that dominate the horizon. He then steps into the picture and asks her to position him toward the side of the viewfinder. “You see how it’s a little easier to take in all of it with something in the foreground? See the difference?” he asks. “Yeah,” she responds, “it’s just not the same.”
The lesson applies to more than photography. Never look at life—at what may seem overwhelming—without adding what is needed to put it into perspective.
3. When the grass looks greener on the other side, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.
When you can’t tell for sure, you need perspective. Kenny Rogers, in his Grammy Award-winning, signature hit The Gambler,
tells us, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” That advice is as true for nurses who find themselves in unbearable work environments as it is for poker-faced gamblers. Nurses call it self-care, and nurses who care for themselves also care for their patients.
Carrie Sue Halsey, MSN, CNS-AD, RNC-OB, ACNS-BC, a clinical nurse specialist who teaches childbirth classes for expectant parents and assists mothers with breastfeeding goals, writes: “A common perceptionin nursing is that bedside nursing is the ‘real’ nursing. Leaving the bedside is tantamount to abandoning your ideals. At my former position, I was directly involved in empowering bedside nurses, improving patient outcomes, and increasing nursing education and satisfaction. All of these efforts, supported by hospital administration, did not prevent me from wanting to drive my car into a ditch on the way to work. I was experiencing Grade A, certified nursing burnout.” Discover what she did in her article “Nurse burnout: When passion isn’t enough,”
published recently right here in Reflections on Nursing Leadership.
What I didn’t see
In 1989, when half of the employees of the company I was working for were let go and my role as managing editor of Magnetic Resonance News came to an end, my employment did not end. Although the consultant who had taken my place at the White House awards ceremony was among those terminated, I remained, my services still desired. And my association with the company would continue for more than a decade, advancing my career and leading eventually to my present position as editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership. Missing out on a one-time White House event, though disappointing, was not the end of the world.
Besides, it wasn’t the president of the United States who was being honored that day but the inventor of MRI, and I knew him. I had spent significant time with him, interviewed him, and dined at his home—honors for which I’ll always be grateful. To put it in perspective, when someone tells me they’re going in for an MRI, I’m reminded that I know the person who invented MRI. It’s like knowing Orville and Wilbur Wright and having someone tell you they’re on their way to the airport. Before Orville and Wilbur, there was no such thing.
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James E. Mattson is editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.
Mattson, J.E., & Simon, M. (1996). The pioneers of NMR and magnetic resonance in medicine: The story of MRI. Jericho, NY: Dean Books.