Doctor Rebecca Jackson is not someone who agonizes over choosing Plan A or Plan B. She’s liable to take on both, plus C and D. Christine Griffin is always looking for an alternate plan, vowing she will never just sit behind a desk. And Bobbi Kay Lewis says life had plans for her that exceeded her dreams.
Today, all three are highly successful professionals with advanced degrees — an M.D., a doctorate of law and a Ph.D. Each, in her own way, is working to change the future for other women: Jackson as director of Ohio State University’s Center for Women’s Health and a key researcher for the national Women’s Health Initiative; Griffin as deputy director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and creator of a program to increase opportunities for women and men with disabilities in the federal workforce; and Lewis was honored as National Outstanding Faculty Advisor to the Association of Women in Communications in 2009.
They’ve never met, but they share a unique milestone — all three were involved in life-changing accidents during the transition between earning advanced degrees and achieving professional success. And now, all three use wheelchairs to navigate the careers they’ve forged.
Hooked on Women’s Health
Dr. Rebecca Jackson set her sights on becoming an endocrinologist at age 14. “I did a science project where I was able to increase the fertility of mice tenfold by changing their nutrition, and I was hooked,” she says. She proceeded to blow through high school, college at Ohio State and medical school in three years each. “I was soooo young,” she recalls, looking back at the young woman who arrived at Johns Hopkins for her residency and internship.
Maybe that youthful energy is what put her on a three-story ledge trying to rescue a cat. She fell, sustained a T10 spinal cord injury and, true to form, expected to speed through rehab but hit the brakes when confronted with conventional activities of daily living. “Learning to mop and cook from a wheelchair was a giant waste of time as far as I was concerned. I needed to be learning how to do medical exams and procedures from a new angle.”
With the assistance of her mom, an assistant provost at Ohio State, Jackson returned to her med school alma mater as a rehab patient. “I needed to be in a place where they saw me as a doctor, not as a broken person. Someone actually had told me it was a good thing I was an accomplished violinist, as if being a physician was no longer an option.” At OSU rehab, she trailed doctors from a variety of specialties, asked a million questions and learned new ways to use the equipment of the medical profession.
“My patients today often ask me why I don’t use a lower exam table, but the regular height is what I learned in rehab, and now I need to be able to use whatever I find wherever I am.” Six months later she was back at Hopkins, where “world-class doctors never blinked at making it possible for me to be a medical resident.”
She remembers in particular a decision to install a lift at a radiology station. “There was no way I could have made it up those four steps, but I never expected to be a hero to the radiology techs who had lugged heavy X-rays up them for years.”
But that’s not the reason she won the Baker Award as “Outstanding House Staff” of her class. “It had nothing to do with being in a wheelchair. I pay attention to details. I’m empathetic, I am a good doctor, and I am incredibly lucky,” she says.
In those days, Jackson’s research interests were purely basic science — looking for answers in genetic codes in the laboratory. Following her residency, she returned to Ohio State as a young clinical faculty member. That’s where a 78-cent hot dog lunch changed her future. “That was back in the days when I still took time for lunch,” she laughs. She had just read an article in Science about a new type of bone densitometer, so she told the administrator who just happened to be eating at her table that the new field could be an opportunity for Ohio State. “He said, ‘Send me something’ — so I did.”
A few months later, he asked her to make a presentation on the topic to a group that turned out to be the hospital board of trustees. “Go do it!” they said. So began her unexpected leadership of a research program in osteoporosis and three decades of groundbreaking findings. Jackson’s team published one of the first studies to show that weight lifting rather than walking was more beneficial to maintaining bone density — force rather than repetition is the ideal kind of exercise to stimulate bone formation.
By the early 1990s Jackson’s work in women’s bone health positioned her to become a leading investigator in the Women’s Health Initiative. More than 161,000 postmenopausal American women from various ethnic and geographic groups have participated in this ongoing National Institutes of Health study of health issues that affect the quality of women’s lives. The resulting collection of data and health records continues to change the way medicine addresses osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, breast cancer and heart disease in older women.
On the Human Side
Jackson cherishes her work with thousands of volunteer participants in the WHI study. The walls of her clinic offices are covered with colorful quilt squares made by study participants. “Those quilts and the diaries are a constant reminder of the women who gave their time, their effort and their trust to us for very little personal benefit. It’s part of what I love about the clinical side — every participant is an example of what we could or should investigate.”
Jackson continues to expand both her passion and its impact. She now heads the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at Ohio State, reaching across nearly a dozen academic programs with the single-minded purpose of getting research results into the field faster.
Just months ago, she began work on a new $7.4-million federal grant that brings her life’s work full circle. Jackson will head up an extension of the WHI — research into the genetic sequencing or signatures of heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis that cause death and disability and diminished quality of life for women. She’ll analyze DNA already collected from the thousands of volunteers who’ve participated in the WHI since its inception in 1994.
As driven as she is to discover new ways for women to live longer, more resilient lives, Jackson is even more enthusiastic about her personal life. She’s the mother of two — a daughter who uses a wheelchair due to seizure disorder and a son who’s a world-class equestrian and college football player.
When her daughter was 5 or 6, Jackson got involved in therapeutic riding. Then her son caught the riding bug. So the Jacksons bought a 34-stall barn and seven Arabians. Jackson herself no longer rides. “I can’t afford to get hurt. There are too many people depending on me.”
Still, the years of early morning feeding, mucking stalls and traveling to horse shows as a family has given her a bigger reward: the strongest of family bonds. “Thanks to all the down time at shows and lessons, I know my children really well,” says Jackson, who is not a part-time parent. Now that her son is temporarily off the show circuit and playing college football at Dennison University, an hour’s drive from Columbus, she never misses a game. Mom is also looking for schools for her daughter who is about to age out of the public school system — a priority that puts medicine and science on hold.
Driven to Succeed
Christine Griffin, at 14, convinced her parents to let her take a a job as a waitress. “They told me if I was going to be making my own money, I would have to be responsible for it.” She learned to manage money and a lot more from the Boston characters on the other side of the blue-plate specials.
On a tip from a customer, she entered the Army out of high school just as the Vietnam War was winding down, serving from 1974 to 1977. Then she decided to use her GI benefits toward a degree in marine engineering at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
“I had a brother-in-law in the maritime industry and he worked six months on and six months off. It sounded good to me,” she says.
But an accident in a Volkswagen convertible left her with a spinal cord injury in November of her junior year.
“Rehab was a lot like the Army, and I knew how to do that,” she says. She found a familiar competitive camaraderie with the guys in rehab using wheelchair sports to regain strength. She also saw case studies in inner strength or the lack thereof. “I’ll never forget one young guy I met in rehab who’d been shot,” she says, remembering a tough guy who was using all his energy being mad. “I just wanted to yell at him. Don’t you get it? This is your best chance to change your life. Go to school!”
Griffin herself took college courses during rehab so she was able to graduate one year after her class, which was no easy accomplishment — the academy’s ships weren’t accessible. “They would have never let me in if I’d already been in a wheelchair.” She credits the ingenuity of professors and other staff who challenged her to complete assignments on the drawing board when she couldn’t go on board, and who put her in ground-floor dorm rooms with roll-in showers and made sure “most” of the classrooms were accessible. (Griffin did get the last laugh. A decade after her graduation, she returned to the academy for a stint as interim president).
Within a year of her accident, Griffin was powering ahead as a competitive wheelchair athlete. She leveraged her new engineering degree into a job with the Food and Drug Administration testing medical devices, then advanced to field investigator, and during the prosecution of a faulty device manufacturer caught the legal bug and wheeled into Law School at Boston College. “It still hadn’t occurred to me that some other people with disabilities were stopped cold by the lack of access I found occasionally inconvenient.”
Being Prepared for Open Doors
A chance internship with former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s lobbyist son, Tom, paid off in Griffin being assigned to investigate the potential impact on clients of a new federal initiative called the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was her first exposure to laws designed to give people with disabilities a fair shot at doing the things most people take for granted. She realized a law degree was a great weapon in the hands of a warrior for justice. “It was my ‘a-ha moment’ — working in the public interest could be very interesting.”
Griffin passed the bar and won the prestigious Skadden Arps Fellowship at the Boston Disability Law Center. She worked as an attorney advisor for the vice chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and by 1996 was executive director of the Boston Disability Law Center.
“I got lucky, I didn’t plan it, but when a door opened, I went through it,” she says. The internship and fellowship led to Department of Justice training and exposure to a whole network of individuals working on ADA advocacy.
In reality, there was a lot more than luck involved. Griffin brought a wealth of unique experiences to the opportunities that came her way. At the end of her Army career, she volunteered for medic training in surgical support and served as an operating room technician. That experience gave her an edge when the job opportunity at FDA arrived years later. “Volunteer for everything” is her credo. “I never tried to blend in,” she admits. Whether crummy hours, boring reports or thankless jobs, she says she always got something out of the extra assignments, and if nothing else, showed initiative.
True to her vow never to “sit behind a desk,” Griffin keeps very active. She pushes her manual chair all over the capital and, in fact, all over the world. She used to snow ski using a sit ski until she finally said to herself, “I’m wet and cold and this isn’t fun. What am I trying to prove?”
After President Obama nominated her, Griffin was appointed deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management in January 2010. In her current position, she’s trying to prove she is no anomaly. “There are tons of people like me out there,” she insists. The challenge in increasing the number of persons with disabilities in the federal workforce is making sure … [they] understand the federal hiring process and bring experience-rich resumes to it. She says a lack of internships and volunteer work make any candidate less qualified than someone with a similar resume amplified by unique experiences.
“There’s no entitlement to federal jobs,” according to Griffin. “Those jobs are and should be difficult to get.” She says her most important job is in providing guidance to job seekers with disabilities to learn how to sell themselves, to rewrite their resumes for each specific job, and to be prepared when that door opens.
From Pumping Gas to a Ph.D.
Bobbi Kay Lewis’ Jeep Cherokee was hit by a station wagon that ran a red light while Lewis was on her way to a girls’ night out in Oklahoma City in the first year of her master’s program. The Cherokee was sent spinning and smashed into a light pole head-on. When the paramedics arrived, Lewis heard one of them say, “This one is not breathing,” about her girlfriend in the passenger seat. The Jaws of Life pried all three girls out and they were taken to different hospitals. Lewis feared the worst when she didn’t see her friend in the emergency room. “I finally got a nurse to call around and found out that Marilyn was OK.” She was so relieved they’d all survived she could hardly stress over her own C5 level paralysis.
Until that point, she had lived a fairly idyllic life in a small rural community. “I had a great family. I played basketball and softball and grew up boating on the lake. My first job, I got to work in my bathing suit pumping gas on Keystone Lake.”
Lewis rehabbed in Tulsa, where NFL Jets lineman Dennis Byrd had famously walked away from an SCI a few years earlier. “I worked my tail off in rehab and even asked for a change in therapists,” says Lewis. “I thought they were wasting my time with all the emphasis on ADLs when the point was walking. I expected to walk out just like Dennis Byrd.” Her biggest shock came when she was released still in a wheelchair.
Lewis’ parents cleaned out her apartment and brought their youngest child back to the family home in tiny Cleveland, Okla. “That was really hard — having my life packed up without me like that.” The lack of manual dexterity from her paralysis left her unable to self-cath, tethering her to her mom every four hours.
“I was still a joyful person, but the rules had really changed.” So who gave her that “snap out of it” talk? “That would be me,” she says. “At the end of the day you have to decide.”
So she rolled out and found a job two blocks away at the local weekly newspaper — perhaps the only job in Cleveland, Okla., where she could use her degree. When she first started, she was designing ads with an Exacto knife and a light table. Lewis helped to modernize the paper, introducing pagination and other upgrades. The business was also a full print shop, where Lewis did all the design work creating logos, letterhead and such.
She found another key to her future in taking on a Sunday School high school class using multimedia to “make it interesting.” Turns out she was the one who got interested. “I had never considered teaching, but you know what? I liked it, and the kids liked me.” She re-entered the master’s program at Oklahoma State, driving between her home and two different campuses in pursuit of the degree while working full-time at the newspaper.
Then six years post-injury, knee surgery changed her life, and it wasn’t even her knee. “My mom had a knee replacement and every day while she was doing leg lifts in rehab she asked questions about self-cathing and ways to increase my independence.” The therapists connected them with a doctor who put Lewis back in rehab, this time with the goal to be able to self-cath.
Next came an offer of a university teaching assistant position. She took it, moved out on her own, and, master’s in hand, surprised herself when she applied for a faculty position teaching advertising and was hired from a crowded field of candidates. “I was always told, universities don’t hire their own.”
In the past three years Lewis has completed her Ph.D., built an accessible home and married. She laughingly says, “I would have put a larger kitchen in the house if I’d known I was going to marry such a good cook.” But since her husband is also a building contractor, she now has a huge outdoor kitchen.
Lewis did not let her injury curtail her career, and she hasn’t let it cut into her play, either. She enjoys scuba diving, motorcycle riding, boating and going out with friends. She’s even been known to take a twirl or two on the dance floor. She says she is always amazed at the attention she gets when she goes out to a club. “It’s like people have never seen someone in a wheelchair have a good time.”
That’s what attracted her to her husband, Daniel, in the first place — his ability to see beyond the wheelchair. After a rousing karaoke performance of “Johnny Be Good” with plenty of audience participation, he responded to Bobbi Kay’s cheers with: “If you thought I was that good, you’d have stood up and danced.”
They were engaged in less than a year, enjoyed a storybook wedding, a tropical honeymoon and hope to adopt a child in the next year.
Best in the Nation
Today Lewis is juggling the demands of earning tenure, writing papers, teaching classes and advising graduate students. Her dissertation and ongoing research examines social media as a strategic communications tool. She says given the increasing role of sites like Facebook and Twitter in activities from marketing to political upheaval, the need for academic research is critical. “Many companies realize they need a social media presence, but don’t know why or how to use it strategically.” The biggest challenges are establishing the legitimacy of the field and getting research published faster than a given medium either evolves or evaporates.
That she’s now a college professor with a doctorate is still somewhat amazing to Lewis. “I always tell people I’m not super smart, just well educated.” She says the fact that she wasn’t a particularly great student and certainly not a great test taker makes her even better in a field chosen by many with a math phobia. “What a hoot that I’m now teaching the media planning class that involves budgeting, ratings analysis and statistics.” She uses her own past math struggles to translate financial concepts to her strategic communications majors.
She’s also passionate about her role as the advisor to the Women in Communications student chapter, as it allows her to develop relationships with students beyond the classroom. Last year she was honored as the best in the nation, nominated by her students who neglected to mention she uses a wheelchair. She considers that a great compliment. “The wheelchair gets me where I need to go; it’s not who I am. It feels good when people recognize your accomplishments without qualifying it by saying, ‘despite her disability.’’’