Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My MS Story Chapter 7 – Turns out there is a lot of walking involved in engineering. Who knew?

(Photo credit: lindejesus)
In the winter of 2003 I was the Project Manager for a big environmental compliance effort at a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal fired power plant. TVA is a pseudo-government entity born of the New Deal, chartered as much to provide jobs as to provide electricity. So naturally we were a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a general contractor of the client conglomerate, with each entity skimming its little slice of the taxpayers’ money while contributing questionable levels of tangible value to those same taxpayers.  I like to think that my company was the exception, because from our spot at the bottom of the food chain we were actually producing real designs. Given that TVA was such a huge client, the engineering firm that I worked for had set up a satellite office about a mile away from their mega-corporate headquarters in Chattanooga, TN.

We routinely walked from our satellite office to the TVA office for meetings because it just didn’t make sense to drive such a short distance and then struggle to find parking, and because everyone knows that walking is good for you. On one of these walks I was joined by 3 or 4 folks from my company and our client company, and maybe their client company too, I can’t recall. I’m not sure I ever completely understood who worked for whom and did what in that wonderfully matrixed organization. I liked all of the people I worked with; it was just the organization of the whole thing that bothered me. As we neared the end of the walk I began to struggle to put one foot in front of the other and had to stop and rest for a few minutes on the bench just outside the door to the TVA office building. This was odd behavior for an apparently healthy 39 year old manly man (well exactly how manly is questionable, but definitely not a girly man).

At that point in time I was not making a conscious effort to keep my MS a secret, but neither was I shouting about it from the rooftops. I much preferred to reveal my diagnosis to my coworkers and other associates on my own terms. When I made a planned, choreographed disclosure there was always sufficient time for me to thoroughly address any questions that might come up. On those occasions when my symptoms revealed themselves suddenly like they did that day, rather than fashion a lie or some lame excuse I’d usually disclose on the spot. This was not as satisfying to me because revealing my condition while in a state of even temporary physical compromise elicited sentiment that smelled more like pity than concern. In this particular case there wasn’t a lot of time to field questions because we were running late.

     “What’s the matter?”

     “Well, I’ve got a little problem that I might as well tell you about. I’ve told some people in the Maine office. It’s no secret.”

     “Oh, this sounds serious.”

     “Well, I don't know if it's serious or not, but I've been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It's not affecting me too much right now, and with any luck it will never affect me very much, but when I walk, oh about as far as we just walked, I have to stop and take a break."

     “How does that work, if you don't mind me asking? Do you get winded, or do your muscles get tired, or what?

     “My muscles get tired, but the problem isn't in my muscles. The signal from my brain to my muscles is messed up. It's a problem in my central nervous system that affects the performance of my muscles.”

     “Are there any drugs you can take for it?”

     “Yes, I’m in a treatment program right now. I can tell you all about it at lunch. You guys ready? We’re going to be late for the meeting."

     “Wow.  I feel bad for you.  Let me know if there is anything I can do.”


I doubt that I freaked any of them out that day in front of the TVA building because I really played down the seriousness of the diagnosis (and I still do sometimes). However, I wonder if their minds did wander a bit during the subsequent long, boring meeting.  What if they had somebody in their lives, or even an acquaintance, who was already struggling with the advanced stages of MS? If so, they may have seen through my “it’s no big deal” smokescreen.

A couple of months earlier my boss, who I had revealed my diagnosis to almost a year before, pulled me aside and asked me how I was doing with the MS. I told him that I was still progressing and that I wouldn't be able to walk around plants and job sites in an unlimited fashion. We both agreed that I should be able to compensate for this issue in other ways, and that it wouldn't be a problem.

My big TVA project was starting to wind down in the spring of 2003, and by all accounts I had done an excellent job as project manager.  The TVA executive in charge of the project made sure that my company was aware of this.  The client's satisfaction was conveyed to me during one of our quarterly meetings at our corporate headquarters in Maine where the senior management team would talk about company performance for the previous quarter and review the goals for the coming quarter. They sometimes took a few minutes for employee recognition. At the January, 2003 quarterly meeting I was recognized in front of the entire company for my outstanding leadership on this project, and was given a special cash bonus. I had worked hard, and I was pleased that this effort had contributed to a successful result for me, my company, and the various clients.

Unfortunately, the project was wrapping up and, even worse, the pipeline for new projects was going dry.  I had one distinct disadvantage as a project manager in this company. I was a chemical engineer who was managing projects that didn't require any chemical engineering. I called upon my general engineering skills and my project management skills to lead a team of mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers. Other project managers typically had a degree in one of those three disciplines, so that when big projects became scarce they could step back and do design engineering work in their discipline. This really wasn't an option for me. Sure, there was some chemical engineering design work being done in the company, but it required that you walk around Pulp and Paper Mills all day long. I took one such assignment before I realized that it simply wasn’t an option for me, for obvious reasons.

So there I was- a project manager without a project; a chemical engineer without legs to get around a chemical plant; and a 39 year old who, for the first time in his life, was worried about his career, and with good reason.
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