A Toxic Research Environment?

A Toxic Research Environment?


Leonard Zwelling

I think it was about 2003 when it began. Members of my staff housed in the oldest part of the Pink Palace (the original MD Anderson building) began having upper respiratory symptoms–coughs, mucous discharges and breathing problems. My Associate Vice President at the time was among those affected. She called in Environmental Health and Safety and after at least two if not three tries, the environmentalists determined that the duct work in our part of the building was disintegrating and the particulate matter being extruded from the ducts was making people ill.

New space was found for the office while the ducts were replaced. The new space had to be across Holcombe on Main Street which separated us from the faculty and staff that we were supposed to be serving. This made doing our work very difficult and our service to the faculty suffered. Around that time a faculty committee had been formed by the president to examine how my office was overseeing clinical research infrastructure. We were found wanting and a new Vice President for Clinical Research was hired. At about the same time I was suffering from burn out that necessitated psychotherapy. I was the one vice president in the Employee Assistance Program on the demographic slide displayed by the HR people.

My therapist eventually sent me to a retreat in Arizona for some equine therapy. That’s right. Therapy with horses. I was in a group with alcoholics, nymphomaniacs, and drug addicts. I learned that I belonged there for I too was addicted. I was addicted to collecting gold stars and had been addicted my entire life. The effects of the toxic work environment, the resultant move off-site, the report to the president, and my own realization that what I was doing was not close to being fun (pleasure, engagement, meaning) and was probably killing me caused me to voluntarily relinquish control of the clinical research infrastructure to that new Vice President for Clinical Research in June of 2004. That began my road to eventual removal as a vice president, my sabbatical in Washington, DC and my recovery. I owe those old toxic air ducts a debt of gratitude, I guess.

That being said, there is a new threat to the health and well-being of some of the faculty and staff of MD Anderson that mandates some action from the top of the organization if there is to be one MD Anderson and a healthy one at that.

The symptoms that my staff suffered twenty years ago are now being reported in the Mod Building abutting the Smith Research Building on the South Campus. Apparently, the HVAC system there needs replacement, but that is a very costly fix for a building that has probably outlived its useful life. Not surprisingly the institution is loath to make that investment and has told the occupants not to worry. They will be moved to new space—in three years. Hmmm—that doesn’t sound like One MD Anderson to me.

My guess is that this form of occupational illness is not all that uncommon in older buildings and many of the lab buildings at Anderson are reaching that state.

It would probably be a good idea to move the occupants of the Mod Building now even if it means they are distributed widely throughout the current lab space. This might be the perfect time to finally break-up the “Experimental” departments remaining in clinical divisions—Pediatrics, Radiation Therapy, Pathology and Experimental Therapeutics and make them the basic science departments they always should have been. This might necessitate a large reorganization within the institution, but that could be a good thing as it would raise these departments to basic research department status and their leaders to seats around the tables of research committees.

Perhaps, like my experience, this can be turned into lemonade.

If there is one thing One MD Anderson should stand for it is a healthy work environment. Certainly, this applies to the research faculty and staff as well as those getting those better masks in the hospital.

Of course, the institution could just cough up the cash and replace the HVAC system in the Mod Building and not have to move anyone. That would be animating One MD Anderson to reality. How about it?

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