You don’t know me, but…
Have you ever had someone change your life? I mean really made a difference. Maybe it’s as simple as a musician who put to words what you’re feeling, or maybe something more dramatic like saving you from a burning building. I can’t say I’ve been pulled from a burning building or had anything nearly that dramatic happen to me, but I have had my fair share of life changing events occur. The thing is, if you’re not physically being saved then it doesn’t always feel like the person did anything meaningful. I’m sure there exists more than one musician who put just the right words together for a person to feel seen and completely altered the course of their live because of it.
I definitely think the universe has a sense of humor. Sure, coincidences happen, the butterfly effect, etc. I’m not religious, like at all, but sometimes things just line up just right and you are left wondering how the hell that happened? It’s not going to change my mind about the existence of gods, but it is fun to see how we ended up here all by some odd accident. And some of you know this story, but if you don’t, well I think it’s about as amazing as anything else.
About 15 years ago when I got out of the service I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do with my life, I hadn’t thought further than the military and when I suddenly found myself a civilian, well… let’s just say things weren’t looking good. Finally, I decided I wanted to build prosthetics. I wanted to help veterans and while I’ve shifted focus a bit to the spinal cord, it’s been 15 years of work to lead to this point with that singular focus. The problem was I even after I had an idea about what I wanted to do, I wasn’t sure how to get there. So I did the only thing I could think of and did a quick search for military prosthetics. That was how I was first introduced to DARPA’s advancing prosthetics project and the person leading the effort, Dr. Geoffrey Ling.
That wasn’t the life changing bit though, the life changing bit was the phone call I made. Looking back on it, it was dumb, but maybe it’s because it was so dumb it worked. I called his office, left a message, and a day later he called me back. After giving me some advice on the path I could take, we said our goodbyes and that was the last he and I ever spoke. Considering his career and his achievements I was grateful he took the time to talk with me, but I thought that would be the end of the story between us.
That phone call was life changing though and while it’s been a long, hard, road to get to this point, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for his advice. I may have been on a similar path, but certainly not the one I’m on now. It was also a nice reminder that people who don’t know you can genuinely want to help. I think it’s why I enjoy mentoring students honestly, a little bit of paying it forward and I mean look at kay (here), it worked out for her. Anyway, point being it’s been nearly 15 years and I still tell my Dr. Ling story (I still call him Col. Ling, but that’s just because that was the only time I interacted with him).
Then a random series of events occured that changed everything again. I wrote a grant proposal (here), but we missed the deadline. Which was frustrating, but several months later, for whatever reason they decided to extend the deadline and school-PI, surgeon-PI, and I submitted it (here). Technically he submitted it, but unlike other grants, because of the funding source, my name got to be attached to this one, which was cool. SOMEHOW we were awarded (here). Because of that, the school wanted to do an interview to highlight my success (here). Thanks to that interview, someone from DARPA noticed me and nominated me for the DARPA Risers program (here), which I got awarded (here). Reading some of those posts, I see I’m very fond of my Dr. Ling story. Not a bad thing in my opinion (obviously).
Now, thanks to all that I’m headed to DARPA Forward and it just so happens that Dr. Ling will be at exactly one of the DARPA Forward conferences, mine. What’s funny is that if any of those things had not occurred I wouldn’t be in this position. I mean, I’m sure there are other coincidences that could’ve happened to lead me to this meeting and this just happened to be the series of events to lead to that end, but it’s exciting to get this chance. If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be here now and I get the chance to say thank you after all these years for changing my life.
I guess the reason I’m writing (yet again) about the events leading up to the event in just a few days is that I’m still trying to figure out how to exactly say thanks. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, a whole ~15 years or so, but I’m still at a loss of words. I don’t know, I just don’t know. Words don’t seem enough and while I’m sure he won’t think it was anything special for him to do it, it was for me. I’m sure I’ll figure it out sooner or later, I’m not going to have a choice in a few days. Regardless of what happens at the conference I’m glad I’ll get to talk with him in person finally.
What a weird time.