Chapter 13: Time for Travel; A New Business

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Chapter 13: Time for Travel; A New Business

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In this chapter, Dr. Ahearn talks about his plans for retirement. He is looking forward to a trip to County Cork in Ireland, where he will immerse himself in the Irish heritage important to his family. He is also assisting his wife in her custom tile business. (Dr. Ahearn joking says that his wife offered him the positions of CEO, COO, or CFO, but never discussed salary or benefits.) He reflects on the fact that his career has allowed him to make contributions in all four of MD Anderson's mission areas: research, clinical service, patient service, and education. He reflects on how his spiritual life has influenced his work: "everything we do is for the glory of God," and hence "I have always tried to do my very best."

Working with colleagues at MD Anderson also inspired him throughout his long career. Finally, reflecting on the interview process, Dr. Ahearn notes that everything he has said reflects his perspective alone but nevertheless one thread will run through all the interviews included in this collection: the concern with patients and patient care.

Identifier

Ahearn,MJ_03_2011121_S013

Publication Date

11-21-2011

Publisher

The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Post Retirement Activities; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Personal Background; Faith, Values, Beliefs; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; Institutional Mission and Values; MD Anderson Culture; Career and Accomplishments; Post Retirement Activities; Professional Values, Ethics, Purpose

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Disciplines

History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History

Transcript

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

You retired at the end of August, and what are you looking forward to with retirement? How has that been so far? And what are you looking forward to?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, I’m enjoying a little bit more leisure time. And the time that we spent in California, we rented a house in Carmel. And it was the idea that you know, there was no deadline date. Our vacation time for the past 10 years or 15 years has been very limited. Simply because in the summer, which would be the heaviest time in my schedule because in addition to the school of health professions, I had the summer programs that I was administering. And it was impossible to get away. I mean the responsibilities, particularly in the King Foundation Program where you’re bringing in high school level students that have perhaps never been away from home before. And there’s a lot of responsibility there with young people in programs. You know, where they’re exposed to elements that they have not had before. And then just the fact that they’re usually a little bit more immature, and --.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What were some of the issues that would come up in that situation?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, I mean (laughter) there were many. One night about two AM, I had a call from the University police. And they had arrested the students that were on the roof of Texas Woman’s University dormitory. And the students had gone up there to play their guitars and have a sing along. And not wanting to disturb the people down in the dorm, they did not think it was bad just to take to the roof. And of course, this of course violated a sign that said do not enter the roof area. But they were up there anyway, and I came down and got them released. (laughter) The next morning at eight o’clock I had a call from the Dean of Women at Texas Women’s University in Fort Worth. And she I want all of your students out of the dorm by five o’clock this afternoon. Because it violate -- they’re not Texas Women’s University students. So our insurance policies do not cover them, and the liability issues that have been caused by this, you know we cannot sustain. So I had them do a lot of finagling to get her. Because it would essentially ended the program, and this was about the second week of an eight week program. Because we didn’t have any other housing possibility for our students. And then there’s you know, just thinking about, there’s lots of different incidences, you know.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

So how did you resolve the housing issue for those students for those six weeks remaining?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, I was able to convince her that this was an anomaly, you know. And that was shortly before one of the other students tossed a football through one of their plate glass windows in the lobby area. And the windows are 13 feet in height, and there was no glass stocked in Houston more than 12 feet in height. And so they had to order it special, and you know, there’s just a lot of interesting things that take place. Students that need medical attention during the summer, and I had to appeal to my friends that were physicians to give pro-bono care to some of the students. And set their bones, and one thing and another. And we’d go together and buy casts for them, you know. (laughter) But it --.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

It’s all out from high spirits. (laughter)

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes. And it was just a very interesting time, always. But that kept me on a short leash during the summer. So being able to just take a vacation and go at my leisure, and come home when I felt like it was very good.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

I don’t think in the last interview I asked you what your wife’s name is.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Joyce.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Joyce. What other trips or activities do you have planned for retirement?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

I think we’re going to probably go in the spring to Ireland. My father and grandfather came from Clonmel, and I have never been back to Ireland.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

I’m sorry, the name -- the name of that is? The name of that town or city?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Clonmel.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Clonmel.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

It’s in County Cork, in the southern portion of Ireland.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Did your family when you were growing up really think of itself as Irish? Was that ethnic background important to you?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes, it was particularly to my grandfather and my father. They were very proud of their Irish heritage.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

So that will be a trip to a heritage laden place for you.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes. Yes.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What does retirement mean to you at this point? I mean has it been something you’ve been looking forward to or --?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

No, I never looked forward to retirement. I mean I knew that I was going to retire at some time. But I enjoyed up to the last day engaged in what I was doing here at the institution. So I’ve remained very busy. My wife has a business, and she (laughter) I laughingly said she offered me the title of CEO, CFO, or COO. But she never discussed salary or benefits. But it’s been a challenge to help her and her business.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What is her business?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

She does custom, ceramic tile. And has been in business for some 30 odd years here in Houston. But it’s a business that has grown and since she was managing it entirely by herself, it’s -- she’s had need for someone else. And she’d been saving a spot for me. (laughter)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

So what have you been doing?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, I do a lot of things. I’ve always been an amateur draftsman, and that’s been sort of a hobby. And I’ve helped her through the years with that. She does a great deal of it in her work ‘cause that’s part of the process in working up bids, and all of her projects, and cost. So I’ve been able to help her along in that line, which gives her freer time to do the artistic part of the painting that she does with her customer work. And so -- ‘cause a lot of that is trips to job sites, people are always making alterations from the original architecture or plans as they begin their construction, they decide to move the stove, or the range, or shorten a counter, or enlarge something. And so it requires a lot of field work. And so I’ve been -- she’s kept me busy in that respect, and it’s --.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What did -- where did those drafting skills come from?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Not really from formal training other than just watching her. She had drafting skills in her undergraduate work. And so in helping her, she’s -- we just transmitted those skills from one to the other, you know and so.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

I noticed in your office or your former office in the school of health professions you had some drawings on the wall that were very meticulous of birds, I believe. And I remember thinking that was interesting to have not paintings, but drawings of that kind. I was wondering about that. So perhaps you chose those ‘cause of your interest in drawing?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes. Yes.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Was there something about the birds too?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

No. No. Just -- we just started on something, and it -- one thing led to another.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

To another. Led to another. (pause) Why don’t I -- well, I guess I wanted to ask you, you know you’ve had some months to reflect on all the work that you did at MD Anderson. And I’m wondering now as you look back at everything you’ve achieved under three presidents. What is it that you feel most proud of?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

That’s a difficult question, because in my tenure here, I started out in a research area, research clinical pathology. It developed as clinical pathology, it came to form, the research part dropped off, and then it was patient care activity in the Ultrastructure hematology laboratory that I managed. So the research aspect of course continued. But patient care was added, and then education opportunities provided. And we were able to develop educational programs. And certainly then, found the school and the challenges there. And then the project safety that was sort of going hand in hand with that prevention. So really in addressing the four major mission areas of the institution, they’ve all been extremely rewarding. And I sort of see a pattern there. You know, but I think that --.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What is that pattern?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, the pattern was that one area had just -- I’ve always said it has opened doors of opportunity. And beginning in the area that I did in the research area with Ultrastructure Research Laboratory, and then as I said, patient care unit; patient service unit really. Not care, but patient service. And then that opportunity was sort of dovetailed with the beginning of the summer programs. And then seeing the need through interacting with youth for some sort of area to address perhaps smoking and sun protection are the two areas that youth really need to address. And that interacting with students and seeing what they responded to led to the development of the initial project safety. And that program has continued to evolve from something with slides and videotapes to CD ROMs, and now to the latest edition with the DVD. It’s you know, it’s just been a process. But each one of the areas has been equally rewarding.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

I just wanted to ask some questions to get kind of a sense of who’s the more private person behind the job. You know, especially now that you retired. And on that line, at the end of our last interview session, you told a really wonderful story about that little horse, Tobias, that you enjoyed taking care of. And when -- as you were telling that story, when you finished, it occurred to me -- and I believe I asked you off record about this -- it occurred to me to ask you if you feel that your religious and spiritual life have had an influence on your work and your career. So I want to ask you that again now.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Oh, I definitely think so.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

How so?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, in the way that you approach everything that you do. You know, I’ve always thought that we always worked for the glory of God. And by doing a good job. Because people look at you a little bit different some time, and you don’t ever want to disappoint them. And so it’s a fact that you want to do the very best you can in everything that you do. Because I think that’s what is expected of us as Christians.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

How early did you have that sense?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

I think I always had it. It was an element in my home, my parents always stressed that. My father always said that don’t ever badmouth your boss. If you’re working and taking his money, you give him his day wage and more. And if you feel that you are not satisfied there, don’t stay, you leave. And of course, here I stayed at MD Anderson for 36 years. (laughter) So I must have been satisfied with what we were doing here. (laughter) But I’ve always tried to do my very best. And you know, when you’re interested in something and you believe in it, the hours in the day doesn’t really mean anything, you know. I know my office staff used to always say because as the workload increased, it would be three o’clock in the afternoon, and I hadn’t stopped for lunch. And so they would be coming in reminding me, you know. You need to stop and have your lunch. But when you’re doing something that you’re really enthusiastic about and interested, time doesn’t really mean anything. And that I was blessed because that was the way I was challenged for the full, 36 years that I was at Anderson.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

As over the course of your career, were there any particular people or books that were very inspiring to you? Not necessarily medical things, but just something that really influenced your thinking?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

No, other than just my association with my colleagues. I think there’s enough inspiration in this institution through everybody at ever level that you just wanted to be a part of that time.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

So was MD Anderson really your family, your social life? Were those the people that you associated most with?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Primarily, yes. Yes.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

So your friends and confidants, you chose from among the MD Anderson community?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes, because we were together and that was primarily --.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What are some of your favorite places? And why are they important to you?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

What do you mean by places?

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Any particular places that you go to for inspiration, for rest, for beauty?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, California has always been that when I was at the University of California, Berkeley for a short post-doc there. It was my first time to visit California, and the beauty of the state, and the fact that flowers just seemed to grow wild. I mean it was extremely beautiful. And so we’ve always enjoyed going back to California. It was right after my wedding, and so it was our first time together. And we enjoyed the state of California a great deal. For foreign travel, we are very partial to Europe; Italy, France, Germany. These are countries that we’ve enjoyed visiting several times.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What is it about those countries that attract you?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

I think perhaps the heritage in being able to see some of the same structures that I’ve read about in my history books, and visiting. So many times here in this country, our history doesn’t go back that far. And so it’s very difficult to have some of the patina that Europe offers and cities.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

, PhD

And maybe you’ll find some family patina when you go to Ireland.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Ireland. I’m quite sure that I will. I look forward to going not on a tour, but just going and traveling at my own speed through the countryside. Staying as long as I want in a place ‘til I feel the urge to move on.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

It’s -- I’ve heard it’s very beautiful.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

It is. We’ve had several medical students in our program from Ireland. And they advised me of the right months to come to avoid the rain and to get the primary green colors of the spring. And avoid the crowds. So it’s -- their descriptions have added to my curiosity to want to see the country.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Do you have any unusual hobbies or talents that help -- would show an unusual facet of your personality to people who don’t know you well?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

I don’t think so.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Really?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

I’m pretty much a vanilla ice cream person. (laughter)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

, PhD

And you show who you are. (laughter) What do you think is your greatest -- your most important quality? I mean if you had to use a couple of words to describe yourself.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Persistence.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Persistence?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Yes. As my wife will tell you, I never let up. I hang on like a snapping turtle, you know. And it pays off. I’ve always figured you could do it if you just kept working at it.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

, PhD

Persistence. Is there anything else that you would like to add at this point? Or a subject area maybe that we didn’t cover in the last sessions?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

No, I’ve primarily just answered the questions that you have asked and so I can’t imagine that there’s any interest there. But --.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

, PhD

Is there anything that I haven’t asked that would be revealing about you or the school of health professions? Something I should know about?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

No. I think everything that I have said though needs to be viewed from my perspective. And that’s been primarily from an educational point of view. And so if you were speaking to someone that was a clinician, their viewpoint of the history of the institution would perhaps be greatly different. But my perspective has been that from an academic point of view as I look at the institution, and the changes that have occurred through the years.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Well, that’s one of the great values of doing a project of this kind. ‘Cause you do get all of those different perspectives that you can put side by side.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

There’s common threads that run through all of them. But they’re a different perspective because there are different challenges in each of those areas. Through the years, the institution has had challenges.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What do you think the common threads are?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

I think the common thread are the patients and what we are all here for. And it’s for the patients. Whether we’re training people to serve the patients, both here and outside the institution. And I know that that’s a primarily motivating factor of the clinicians is the patient. And then all of those that support the patient care activities here.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

What do you think are the different challenges in those areas? I mean in education, in clinical research?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

I think at different times, the workload area as the institution continues to grow, they’re always -- it’s like your body. You know, as your body grows, perhaps the shoe gets a little tight some time until you go to another size. And any time you have growth, first you have to have the need for it, and then that increases, and then with that, then you can add the staff to help support that growth. But it’s sometimes very difficult, I think, particularly for the clinicians and their workload. I see them work awfully hard, and their hours are extensive here. You have to believe in the institution and the purpose of the institution in order to be able to function in a situation like that. We have a very dedicated clinical faculty.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Well, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me this morning.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, I’ve enjoyed it.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Thank you very much. And I’m turning off the recorder now at about 20 minutes of 11. Thank you again.

Chapter 13: Time for Travel; A New Business

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