Last year, I celebrated my 50th birthday. This milestone had me reflecting on the paths I’ve chosen in my life my career, and the healthcare technology management (HTM) industry.
One of the more notable forks in the road for me came when I was 23 years old. I had by this age reached my lowest point. With no college degree and two daughters under three years old, I was unable to land a job that paid me enough to afford daycare, let alone provide for my family.
I recorded a short video telling the story of how I came to work in the HTM industry. The video accompanied an application for a grant aimed at bringing more women and minorities into technology-based careers.
I still feel that resolve from that time period like it was yesterday. It was one of those “enough is enough” times in life that perhaps you’ve experienced as well. The love I felt for my girls and the desire to give them the best life possible spurred me into taking action. I was determined to get a college degree, though I’d be the first in my family to do so and I had no idea how to go about it.
And so, I did what we all do when the way forward is unclear—I just started trying things.
I must have applied for thirty scholarships, but I knew I’d need to stay close to my family who I’d rely on to help me with the girls while I attended classes. I turned over every rock, exploring every idea, lead or contact that I came across. Figuring this out became my mission.
Ultimately, I was awarded a scholarship that had been established to fund the education of women seeking “nontraditional” careers. The vocations offered were welding, auto mechanics, and biomedical electronics technology. I selected biomed because it was the only option that came with a college degree (the others were technical certificates), and I didn’t really see myself welding or fixing cars.
Truth be told, I was also apprehensive about biomed. While I had mastered the art of getting my (unreliable) car started, no one would have considered me to be technically savvy. But by April of 1995, I had made it through my coursework and was completing the internship that was the capstone of my degree when I received a job offer from the company I was interning with. That offer was for full time employment as a biomedical equipment technician at a local hospital earning $10 an hour. It was the most I’d ever made!
I remember crying with pride as I shared the news with my parents, and I still have that offer letter in my desk drawer today. After more than two years of trying, failing, feeling uncomfortable, learning, and staying resolute I’d achieved what I’d set out to do.
I spent the next 15 years servicing medical equipment in a variety of roles: BMET and field service engineer, generalist and specialist. While I continually earned high praise for my work, I never considered myself a great technician. The mentors who guided me during my early career seemed to have an innate talent for understanding how things work and why they don’t and would forever be my benchmark of what a great BMET looks like. The truth is they just had more practice than I did, and they used consistent methods for organizing, managing and performing their work. Once I grasped the idea that I could excel in anything I did if I committed to excellence in the way I work, I couldn’t be stopped!
While I grew my skills, I came to realize I had no interest in devoting the time and focus necessary to become a technical expert. It was around this time that it occurred to me to stop and consider how I did want my career to progress. Again, personal circumstances played a role in my reaching this existential pivot point. The shock of September 11th, and later a divorce, led me to a new resolve to build a more purposeful life—whatever that means. When it came to my work, I decided I wanted to find a role that provided an opportunity to influence the industry in a positive way.
With my girls then in high school, I started on a new journey. This time, I wanted to explore roles in HTM that stretched me and allowed me to learn and grow. I worked as a trainer, auditor, consultant, and business manager, all while earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. This ‘sampling’ approach helped me discover what type of work I loved to do and where my strengths were. It also made me realize I had some limiting beliefs, and I’d need to challenge myself in new ways if I were to achieve new things.
Fast forward to today, and I find myself celebrating my 25th year in this industry and leading one of the largest HTM organizations in the world.
Over the years, my daughters have watched me succeed and fail, stumble and recover. While they really like to recount my failure stories (with lots good-humored razzing), I also see them demonstrate a tenacity I like to think they learned from their mom. And I’m proud of the independent young women they’ve become, out there charting their own way forward, knowing the only “right” path is the one you choose for yourself.
And today, as we all learn and adapt to new challenges, many of us are pursuing new opportunities, taking new approaches and letting go of the traditions that no longer serve us. If you’re in this camp and happen to be considering a career in HTM, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore this path further. Set aside everything you think you know about a career in a technical field, at least for a moment.
HTM is an industry for those who like to be challenged. We’re a profession that requires diligence, integrity, problem-solving, cooperation and communication. We need people who care about the work they do and the people they serve. We need you—we’ll teach you the technology.
While there are significantly more women in our industry today than there were 25 years ago, some might still call HTM a “nontraditional” career field for women. I believe many women just can’t imagine themselves in a technical career. They may not understand the work involved and so they don’t pursue these technical fields. If sharing my story encourages women to take a chance on a career in healthcare technology, I’ll count that as having positively impacted our industry.
Donna Marie Dyer is senior director of healthcare technology management at GE Healthcare and a member of the AAMI Foundation Board of Directors.