Class, Interrupted

So, this semester life decided to throw me a curve ball.

I started the semester optimistic. Classes started abnormally early (Aug 10), but that was because MPOW added both a fall break and an extra week of classes this year, bringing us back to the 16-week semester that seems more common. (Right before I started, they had dropped to a 15-week semester, which worked well for some disciplines but left not quite enough time for others. It also meant we were supposed to use the full final exam period in order to meet federal requirements for credit hours.) So, now I would have a little more time to get through the stuff I wanted to cover, and could make the final exam period an optional work day to get help on revisions on one big assignment that would be due by the end of that period, instead of mandating that everyone attend that period.

I was also made chair of a search committee for a tenure-track faculty librarian in my department. We were still working on the wording of the job ad in early August, but I was really excited to be involved in shaping that and trying to attract a more diverse pool of applicants than I’m aware of us getting in the past.

Personally, though, I also had a fateful appointment – it was actually on the first day of class (I usually only teach one or two sections a semester, since I have lots of other librarian duties in addition to teaching, and I only had one section this fall), later in the afternoon. I lost all trust in my previous gyno last year, so went to a new one this year. And she noticed that something didn’t feel right. So she scheduled me for an ultrasound about 2.5 weeks later. I looked around online a bit, thought maybe they’d find fibroids, which could mean surgery, but surgery that could be scheduled for spring, when I could plan to not be teaching and when the search would hopefully be completed.

So I went on with teaching. My class was exceptionally quiet – it was a struggle to get anyone to talk in front of the whole class. But other than that, it seemed to be going well.

And then I went to my ultrasound. They found a mass, which looked like an ovarian cyst. They didn’t think it was cancerous, but they refer any cysts greater than 10cm to an oncologist, just to be safe. (spoiler alert: it turned out not to be cancer, but I got that confirmation months later)

I managed to make it home before crumpling on the floor, crying and clinging to my dog. She brought a squeak toy over for us to squeak together for I don’t know how long (it’s a snake with 7 or 8 sections of squeakers). That was Monday, and I had to teach on Tuesday.

As you might imagine, my head was NOT in the game that Tuesday. I made it through class, but felt like an automaton. I had settled in to coping a bit better by Thursday, but was still not all there.

So I told my students what was going on. I didn’t specify that it was an ovarian cyst, but told them that a doctor had found a mass and felt the need to refer me to an oncologist. I told them that it scared the fuck out of me, and that’s why I was doing the best I could that week but felt like I was not doing as well as I normally would.

I’m not good at being vulnerable with people I don’t know well. With colleagues, I wasn’t shy about the details of what was going on, but I didn’t talk about how I felt about it. Telling a class full of students how scared I was was scary in itself, especially since it involved admitting that I felt like I was not doing as good of a job of teaching as normal. I also told them I would do my best to minimize the effect it would have on their educational experience, but…

I debated whether to say something at the beginning or end of class. I went with the beginning, so that I wouldn’t “run out of time” or otherwise chicken out. And then I was like “ok, now to totally shift gears, let’s move on to the lesson.” I don’t know it that was the best way to handle it, but I did try to pay attention to easing into a normal lesson, and repeat the key points again next time.

Most people didn’t say much. What do you even say in that situation? One student did come up after class though, and thanked me for sharing. They said that a lot of times, students don’t really think of professors as people, and something like, it was nice to realize / be reminded that we are people, too (I didn’t write down the exact wording!). And, of course, they wished me well.

I started talking with my department about the referral, but had to wait a couple of weeks for my initial consultation with the oncologist, so didn’t know what to expect in terms of testing or timing or what.

When I saw the oncologist in mid September, she opted to just schedule a surgery. Whether the growth was cancerous or not, it would need to come out. So instead of adding extra procedures, she wanted to just do the surgery, do as much diagnosis as possible while I was open, save what she could but remove anything that looked abnormal while she was in there, and then send the tissues off for a full pathology report. Since the recovery period would be the same, I asked whether she could do a hysterectomy while she was in there. I’ve always had miserable cramps – like, it was a good month if I could stand up to walk to the restroom instead of crawling. She determined that, with my family history of cancers, that would be justifiable.

Once I had a plan and a date, it was time to get started planning. A colleague/friend offered to substitute teach my class for four weeks. The recovery period was 4-6 weeks, and the 5th week would be Thanksgiving break. Things didn’t wind up working out so smoothly, because she had a personal issue come up as well. When it rains, it pours, it seems!

The other major thread of this semester was the search. I talked with my department head and the rest of the search committee. I told them that I would really like to continue chairing this committee, but would be willing to step down as chair or remove myself entirely if needed. Thankfully, they were willing to work around the time I needed to take off.

I had my surgery on Oct 24. Apparently ultrasounds are very blurry and often wrong. The reason for the surgery was a grapefruit-sized cyst on my right ovary. It turns out, the right ovary was perfectly fine and could stay, but the left ovary had a huge endometrial mass attached plus a small cyst, so it had to be removed. It was all benign. They did a laparoscopic-assisted surgery, so got a nice clear camera view before they started cutting. Keeping the one ovary means that I was not plunged into menopause early, but the rest is gone so I never have to suffer through another period!

As relieved as I was by the outcome, I still hate the timing of it. I wish I could have pushed the surgery off until January, so I could just plan to not be teaching. I know that I did not do as good of a job as I want to do in my teaching. There were days when I was distracted. Being out meant that I wasn’t there to give them feedback on parts of their final research projects in a timely manner. In terms of course content, the lessons planned for the weeks I would be out were pretty much the best lessons for me to miss – by that part of the semester, I’ve spent a lot of time on evaluation and went over the research process and types of sources (scholarly vs popular, what the hell is a scholarly journal article, etc). At that point, they should be working toward their final research projects, so the class lessons are on “the political, cultural, and social dimensions of information” – including copyright/open access, filter bubbles, social media, and so on. So it’s stuff that is important for them to learn, but not fundamental to their ability to search the library databases, evaluate the sources they’re finding (whether in databases or on google), and distinguish between different types of source. But I hate that I wasn’t there.

All things considered, things went as well as they could. I’m not happy that they didn’t go as well as normal, but there was no way I could have prevented it. But I hope to not have to repeat this level of interruption for a long while, at least.