Chris Jeffords | Associate Teaching Professor | Department of Economics
“To the extent that my story is about academia and career paths is up for debate, but this is a very personal story which I hope helps you on your path to resiliency.
In 2011, I was in my last year of graduate school at the University of Connecticut (UConn). My wife – Amy – and I were just married in July 2010, and I planned to jump into the academic job market in January 2012 (the annual job market organized mostly by and mostly for economists). It was October and we were pregnant with our first child, and Amy and one of her sisters just had a joint baby shower. As a result, our apartment in Connecticut was full of baby stuff. So. Much. Stuff.
At the same time, Amy’s doctor (Dr. M.) was monitoring a cyst on her right ovary. Dr. M was also Amy’s colleague as they worked at the same small community hospital in Connecticut. On October 21, 2011, which is also one of Amy’s sister’s birthday, Amy experienced some serious pregnancy complications which required an emergency c-section. Of course, this was performed by her friends and colleagues at work, because we had initially drove to meet Dr. M in the obstetrics unit. The baby wasn’t moving, and the medical staff couldn’t find a heartbeat (although they did mistake Amy’s fast heartbeat for the baby’s). The surgery was meant to last 30 minutes and as 90 minutes passed, and I heard multiple cries from newborn babies, I was escorted to a birthing suite in the maternity ward. After a few moments, Dr. M. came in to explain that the baby was stillborn at 33 weeks, and the surgery took longer than expected because he needed to remove Amy’s right ovary and fallopian tube. Apparently, that cyst was angry enough to warrant the oophorectomy and the cyst was sent to the lab for examination. We spent a few days in the hospital with family coming and going, and it was quite terrible for both of us, and especially for Amy.
We now had to plan Mae’s funeral and decided to bury her on top of Amy’s mother, Antoinette, who passed away when Amy was around 18. From among the baby shower gifts, we picked out an outfit and some toys for Mae and placed them in the casket with her. The morning of the funeral (which was in the Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania), about a week after Mae Antoinette passed, Dr. M. called to tell me that the cyst was cancerous, that Amy had a form of ovarian cancer, and that she would need to obtain treatment from a group he recommended in Hartford. I didn’t know what to do with that information, especially given that I was hours away from sobbing my way through my first (and hopefully only) eulogy ever. So, I told my brother the news and, after the funeral, explained to Amy that we needed to go back to Connecticut for her to follow up with Dr. M. Truly, I didn’t know the right thing to do, so I decided that keeping the cancer information private for a few days for Amy to grieve Mae was the best path and ultimately told her the night before her follow-up appointment. She didn’t sleep for one second, and we were staying at a friend’s house due to a huge ice storm that had knocked out power for over a week in parts of New England.
Eventually, we followed up with the gynecologic oncologist who revealed that the cyst was a form of ovarian cancer, and one that likely wouldn’t had been found had this emergency surgery never unfolded as such. Amy didn’t need any serious treatment but would be under surveillance forever, and possibly require a radical hysterectomy after we were done having kids. Wow. Armed with all this information and experience, I went to the job market in Chicago a few months later in January 2012. I had 8 interviews across three days and didn’t secure a single second-round interview. I’m not a traditional economist but also, I was a hot mess. Hiring a hot mess is risky business (but I would have taken a chance on me)! So much of a hot mess that I when I eventually met up with a few folks who were a bit ahead of me at UConn and they asked me how things were going, I broke down and cried on the streets of Chicago. I have no regrets.
It’s now 2012 and we are pregnant again. Thankfully, I had finally secured a tenure-track job contract at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) to begin in Fall 2012. My wife wanted to stick with her current doctors (and who wouldn’t after all they did for us!), so I secured a one-year leave from IUP and started in Fall 2013. In the interim, I worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University. Well, in September 2012, our son Ward was also born about 7 weeks early at an emergency surgery and for similar reasons. Given that my wife is a rockstar, she realized something was wrong in the spirit of what happened with Mae, and we went to Hartford Children’s Hospital and Ward was born. The funny thing is that we didn’t have a name picked out, so Ward’s name was Babyboy Krysiewski for a time, and long enough that the insurance company billed us under this name! At the time, this was all very scary because Ward needed to spend some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to be a “feeder and grower,” but I’ll take this time in the NICU any time over what happened in 2016. All Ward needed was some oxygen for about a day and a platelet transfusion, and 6 weeks later he passed the car seat test to send us on our way home!
Well, it’s 2016 and we are pregnant with our third kid, but Rosie Mae wanted to party much earlier than Mae and Ward. It’s the 24-week mark and the same problem Amy felt with Mae and Ward is happening already. At this point, we are living in Indiana, PA and the local hospital does not have a NICU – the closest one is an hour by car. Amy was being followed by a local doctor until 28 weeks, at which point she was meant to move under the care of doctors at Magee Women’s Hospital. So, a few weeks earlier than expected, we are at Magee trying to get Rosie to behave while at the same time preparing Amy for an emergency c-section due to failing biophysical profile exams and other signs of distress. Thankfully, Rosie behaved but only for about two weeks. At 26 weeks, Amy is back in the hospital but it’s the local one in Indiana. She and the baby are in too much distress to travel, so a NICU team from the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh took a helicopter to Indiana (thank goodness for good weather in February!), helped deliver Rosie, and quickly shuffled her 1 pound, 5-ounce body to the NICU at Magee Women’s. Rosie was born in full code and required resuscitation, and when she was brought back to life she was immediately intubated. I saw her for about five minutes before she was flown to Pittsburgh (by the way, flight nurses are amazing!). Once she was there and assessed, the team backdated her age to 24 weeks given her size and severity of prematurity. That is, she was officially born 16 weeks early.
Rosie spent the next 193 days in two NICU’s and one step-down unit. In fact, we all spent 193 days in the hospital, at times sleeping at the Ronald McDonald House with Ward (who was about 4). Rosie had 409 blood draws, 5 surgeries, 7 blood transfusions, 71 x-rays and ultrasounds, 1 EEG, 1 spinal tap, medical necrotizing enterocolitis, and a partridge in a pear tree. After Rosie experienced several failed extubation attempts (7!), we opted for a tracheostomy. Rosie then started to thrive, and we eventually left the step-down unit for our in-home Intensive Care Unit and 24/7 nursing care coverage so Amy and I could continue working. At home nursing coverage is interesting and extremely helpful at times, but it’s also quite weird to have someone in your house all the time.
Years of daily trach-tie changes and bi-weekly trach changes, emergency (roadside) trach changes (yes, one at a bar in the middle of nowhere), and just generally being tied to the broader medical community pass, and Rosie is finally decannulated through an airway reconstruction in 2019. During the same time, my wife switched from working in public relations and communications at hospitals and a bank for over a decade to work full-time as a baker for a locally owned coffee shop in the greater Pittsburgh area. I received tenure at IUP in 2018. After another 30-day stay in the hospital in July/August 2019, we were excited to get Rosie through the 2019 flu season and out into the world in 2020. Well, we know what happened in 2020 and it was quite possibly the worst circumstance for someone like Rosie. A global, respiratory pandemic for a prematurely born kid with a rebuilt trachea and mild chronic lung disease. We were back on lock down, and it was not great.
In Fall 2020, IUP, after having an enrollment of around 15,000 students in 2013 had about 9,000, and the pandemic sped up a reorganization process the state system was planning. Approximately 120 tenured, tenure-track, and other faculty were issued retrenchment letters based on the covenants of the collective bargaining agreement. Being one of three newest hires in my department and, by way of a random lottery, a colleague and I were issued letters of retrenchment noting that we would no longer be employed by IUP after May 2021. Full departments were cut and folks who had been full professors for years were let go. I always think that if life didn’t happen the way it did and that I had started in Fall 2012, that I would still be working at IUP.
Nonetheless, I had been looking for a new job. One where we were close to family in Eastern Pennsylvania and Long Island, and one with a lighter teaching load. My teaching load at IUP was a 4-4, and I would typically have about 150 students per semester across 2-3 different course preparations. It was a difficult environment to perform service and research, but I did my best. At the same time, I couldn’t simply do a geographically focused search because I wasn’t going to have a job come May 2021. I broadly applied, finding myself having to explain why I would (as a tenured Associate Professor) be willing to take a job as an Assistant Professor, a Visiting Professor, or a non-tenure track professor. I must have sent out over 100 applications, until finding the posting for a CNT at Villanova in the Economics Department. I figured, why not? The cynic in me thought I had no chance at the job. Why would they consider someone like me under my circumstances? I had also just spent a considerably long-time teaching from my basement via zoom while fighting the background noise of my son taking his second-grade classes (also from the basement) and my daughter stomping around upstairs. Anyway, I applied, interviewed via Zoom and sent over a teaching demonstration (which was essentially me in a dank basement talking to students via Zoom while using my whiteboard and fighting the sounds of my son in virtual school). Like I said, no shot!
But, of course, I did get that job and it was delightfully exciting! I applied at the Assistant level (per the job opening) but was offered a position at the Associate level and with a reduced teaching load for my continued research contributions. I was so excited, and so was my family. We would be closer to our extended family and Villanova is such a huge step up in many ways. This was Spring 2021, and we sold our house in Indiana, PA, rented a tiny condo for a few months, and begin looking for housing north of Philadelphia. Many visits and tours later, we overpaid for a house in Mont Clare, Pennsylvania. But a funny thing happened next. On the last day of finals week at IUP in Spring 2021, I received a letter from the President’s office noting that my retrenchment letter was rescinded, and I could have my job back (as it was, tenured and all). Wow, two job offers in one season – I was moving up in the world! Of course, I did not (nor could I) accept such an offer, but it was just a bit of icing on the “life happens” cake.
Other things happened along the way which could have easily thrown me off my game as a student, father, husband, and human. My estranged father died of opioid-addiction related ailments. Amy and I had a Great Dane we had to put into an animal sanctuary due to his repeated successful and unsuccessful attempts at biting Amy while she was pregnant with Mae. Amy developed an autoimmune disease which she manages to this day. I had a serious back injury which required surgery and perpetual pain management. Ward is crushing life with a profound understanding of things a kid his age wouldn’t necessarily experience. Rosie has some intellectual disabilities and is just beginning special education kindergarten. Amy found a new job fundraising for a local organization which attempts to secure housing and job opportunities for adults with special needs, all through private donations. I’m loving work at Villanova, trying my best to implement sustainability initiatives all over the community. The point is, that life happens, and I do my best to take life day-by-day but sometimes it must be second-by-second. Resiliency and flexibility go together, and I’d love to be a resource or a listening ear – so feel free to drop me a line whenever you feel like it!”