Looking forward and looking back

by Joan Rachlin, JD, MPH, Executive Director

The year was 1975—Saturday Night Live premiered, the Oscar-winning Best Picture One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was drawing people to the movie theaters, and the first VCRs were developed, allowing us to watch our favorite shows and films at home. Saigon fell, and the Apollo soared into space for a link-up with the Soviet spacecraft, the Soyuz. The Red Sox roared to a first place finish in the American League East, but eventually lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

I was a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School, studying to become a health lawyer. What I really wanted to become, though, was a doctor, but since not many “girls” were going to medical school in those days, I instead joined the droves heading to law school, hoping to work in the field of women’s health and/or patient advocacy.

True confessions—I was a child of the ‘60s and had grand visions, or, more accurately, grand illusions, about making a difference in the world. I was committed to helping the most vulnerable in society, and resonated with the poet Stanley Kunitz’s question, however rhetorical, “To whom can one pledge allegiance except to the victims?”

As fate would have it, I found a part-time job at a small health law firm here in Boston, Chayet and Sonnenreich, which at that time represented several of the area teaching hospitals. I had a variety of responsibilities, among them taking notes at the dinner meetings of two newly formed organizations: the first was known as CIRBEM, or Chairpersons of IRBs in Eastern Massachusetts, and the second was PRIM&R. I knew nothing about clinical trials or research ethics, and although I had certainly heard about the atrocities that had occurred under the Nazi regime, that seemed long ago and far away.

The issues I heard discussed around those tables—fetal research, testing psychoactive drugs on persons with diminished capacity to consent, research on organ transplantation, and the emergence of recombinant DNA—all fascinated me, and I was hooked. Although these topics grabbed me and held me fast, it was—and has remained—the people with whom I was privileged to work that turned me into a PRIM&R “lifer.”

In preparation for today’s announcement that I will be stepping down as PRIM&R’s founding executive director in early 2014, I have been reflecting upon my engaging and inspiring years at the helm of this very special organization. I have tried to learn from everyone with whom I have come into contact and feel grateful beyond measure for all of my teachers. I have learned about the dignity and worth of any form of work from chambermaids; wisdom from the many “philosopher king” taxi drivers who ferried me hither and yon; empathy, commitment, and dedication from the community of IRB and IACUC professionals; ethics and excellence from the giants on whose shoulders we are standing; extraordinary work ethic, patience, and the meaning of teamwork from my staff; and friendship and kindness from more people than I can count or even remember.

I consider myself the luckiest of individuals to work for an organization that has come to stand for the pursuit of justice, asking the hard questions, and the use of education to erode ignorance. I look forward to keeping those important fires burning in the months to come, and with your help, I know they will continue to burn brightly, as this organization has always been about the whole being more than the sum of its parts.

I wish each of you the same joy, fulfillment, and relevance that I have found in my work. I urge you not to accept the status quo because “that’s the way it is,” but to keep rising ever higher to ensure that we treat everyone the way we would like to be treated.  We are all connected by invisible threads, and I hope you will keep working to strengthen and make visible those essential connections.

I’m not going anywhere any time soon, and will be back in touch. Until then, thank you for your support, and please keep it coming to this organization I so love and admire.