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My Story: Resilience Is My Life's Motto

Podcasters for Justice

As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the WOC Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.

Today I will share my own life’s grit and resilience story, for it is my birthday.

Resilience is my life’s motto, and that’s the reason for this podcast subtitle.

It’s also one of my superpowers and one day, when the pandemic finally ends, it will be my next tattoo.

Marie Gettel-Gilmartin and her mom
With my mom, who was only 24 when she had me

It started when I was born. My mom had German measles when she was pregnant, in the days before ultrasounds. I was born with a cleft lip, cleft palate, and club foot. The doctor would not allow my mom to see me until he warned her first. She brushed him away, insisting that she be able to hold me. The way she tells it, she was just incredibly relieved that I had birth defects that could be repaired.

I know that my mom’s immediate and unconditional love on the day of my birth, 56 years ago today, set me up for my resilient and optimistic spirit.

My childhood was full of doctor visits and never-ending surgeries. My first childhood memory was being in the hospital, waiting for surgery. I do not remember any fear. In fact, that is a typical attitude I’ve had to all of the 20+ surgeries I’ve had in my life. I trusted the doctors, and I had no particular reason to believe anything would go wrong. That describes my approach to most things, I suppose.

Marie Gettel-Gilmartin in front of Christmas tree
Me at age 1

In 1964, the U.S. had only two cleft palate centers, and one of them was in Oregon. As a child, I loved Dr. Robert Blakeley, the upbeat, jovial white-haired man who made me laugh. What I didn’t know then was that he was essentially a cleft palate rock star. He developed free or low-cost clinics around the world for treating children with cleft lips and cleft palates.

As a baby I started wearing an obturator. It covered the hole in my palate and had a bulb at the end of it, which over the years was shaved away until it was very thin. The obturator helped me talk so people could understand me. Dr. Blakeley advocated fiercely to obtain speech therapy for me when I was in preschool.

Unfortunately, my screwed-up mouth also resulted in crooked teeth and an overbite, so I had extensive dental and orthodontial work and two jaw surgeries. All my life, I’ve been stared at, and I’ve always felt self-conscious about my face unless I'm smiling.

Marie Gettel-Gilmartin at outdoor school
Outdoor school, 6th grade

I was the victim of bullying in junior high. The “hoods,” as we called them, would be smoking cigarettes, looking menacing, and taunting me at the school bus stop. I’m not sure where my strength came from, but I did not want to let them know I was bothered. Of course it bothered me.

Then I experienced a deeply traumatic event at age 13 when I was sexually assaulted by a stranger in my home. To this day, I am fearful of dark places at night-time and do not like to walk alone at night. Nearly 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted at some time in their lives. We are everywhere, and it’s important to talk about it to reduce the matter how hard it might be.

I am a 7 on the enneagram, the type that is optimistic and likes to focus on joy, happiness, and pleasure...because I have been through a shit ton in my life! I know I am strong because of my ability to survive and be resilient.

I have always felt this inner push to do things that scare me. From performing “Let It Be” in a school talent show in 7th grade to competing on the high school speech team, I put myself out there even though it is terrifying.

Marie Gettel-Gilmartin and Japanese students
Madonnas in Wakayama, Halloween

After graduating from college, I wanted an adventure. I applied for a job in Japan and told myself, “If I get hired, I’m going.” I knew no Japanese, and fortunately convinced my college roommate to join me.

We taught in a women's junior college, but we had absolutely no training in how to teach them. We had to wing it! I felt completely unprepared, and I don't like to feel unprepared. Unfortunately, we learned the company that hired us was unethical and dishonest.

Although I look back on my time in Japan fondly, I did have a rough time my first few months there.

As a young feminist, I chafed against the patriarchal and male-dominated culture.

My students just wanted to get married, and my friends in Japan didn't seem to mind the sexism. I also missed my family and friends.

I decided I would go visit my sister Nadine in Chengdu for Christmas and arranged to take a two-day boat trip from Kobe to Shanghai, and then fly to first solo trip. My crooked boss Hiroshi told me I could not take the trip, and I had to fight him for the right. He never spoke to me again. Women were not supposed to challenge men.

Marie Gettel-Gilmartin and her sister in Chengdu
With my sister in Chengdu

I had some vivid adventures in Shanghai and Chengdu, as I talk about in the podcast. Most important was spending time with my sister while we were both experiencing the adventure of our lives. It wasn't easy to travel in China solo in 1986!

Wakayama was a great place for my first year in Japan. But best of all that first year was meeting my now-husband Mike--at our friend Cath's apartment at a Robert Burns night in January. I share that story in the podcast.

Marie and Mike at Japanese festival
With Mike at a Japanese festival

I have so many fond memories of times in Japan with Mike--cherry blossom viewing at Osaka Castle; eating dinner in fancy French restaurants, wine bars, and robatayakis; going to the movies and being the only ones to laugh during American and English films; and just learning about each other. We both met each other's parents for the first time in Japan. Mike came back to Oregon with me during the summer of 1988, and we spent one Christmas in Singapore and Malaysia.

After leaving Japan in 1989, we embarked on a three-month journey through Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, and India. And in the exotic city of Udaipur, on the roof of a former maharajah’s palace in the middle of a lake, Mike asked me to marry him. Then I went back home to Oregon, and he went home to England for three months.

Udaipur, India

When Mike was finally on U.S. soil, a grumpy government employee in Minneapolis nearly kept him from me. My creativity, in the form of a handmade calendar I'd made for him, was what got him past the immigration guy.

We got married that June. Mike wanted to be a writer, so I told him I’d support him for a year. I realized I liked going out to work, and Mike liked staying home...a true extrovert and introvert. Our marriage has only grown stronger through the storms we have faced together.

Marie and Mike on Yorkshire moors
One of my first visits to Yorkshire moors

A few months before we got married I started temping at environmental engineering firm CH2M HILL. That summer I moved into the editing group. I would end up working at CH2M HILL for 28 years.

Just a few years later, I was promoted to lead the Technical Publications group, even though I was by far the youngest. In 1996, I landed a huge manage the whole Publications group in the company’s largest region...six offices in Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington...and later Idaho.

It meant bringing together staff who were operating completely independently and building a high-functioning service team of creatives.

I would serve in that role for 13 years, leading over 70 proposal managers, editors, graphic designers, document publishers, and repro staff. I loved that job!

I had just been offered the job in February when I learned I was pregnant. By August, my job was well under way and I was regularly traveling around the region.

And then my life changed completely when I gave birth to my first child at just 24 weeks.
Marie touching baby Christopher
Touching tiny Chris in the NICU

Listen to the podcast to learn the details of his premature birth, 117 difficult days in the NICU, and the most terrifying moments. The hardest thing was not being able to hold him until he was 5 weeks old.

Almost a year to the day after we took Chris home, he had to be readmitted to the hospital because he caught RSV, which led to pneumonia. We had to spend several days in isolation in the pediatric unit, and the nurses pumped quarts of mucus out of his lungs. It was awful!

Photos of Paris
Visiting France in 2001
I still have some trauma about our NICU experience, evident because I got emotional as I was telling this story on the podcast!

When Chris had a frightening grand mal seizure at the age of 9, I fainted! It's all much more firmly etched in my psyche than I realize. He was diagnosed with epilepsy and was on seizure meds until he was in his teens when he grew out of it. When he was 10 he was diagnosed with ADD. But compared to the problems that beset so many micropreemies, he was so lucky...a walking and talking miracle.

Chris and Precious Beginnings friends
Chris and Precious Beginnings friends, at his college grad party
Even though I would never wish the NICU experience on ANYONE, through the experience we learned to value life and miracles and we also made some of the best friends of our lives in other NICU parents.

We were invited to join the hospital’s NICU Family Advisory Board to advise the NICU on how to be more family centered. In 2000, we cofounded a nonprofit, Precious Beginnings: Parents Supporting Parents of Critically Ill Newborns.

When I went back to work after Chris was born, Mike became primary caregiver for our three sons.

Our sons have learned that moms can be the ones who leave the house to work, while dads can be amazing, caring, and fun caretakers.

Mike writes fiction when he can squeeze it in, and after I got laid off last year he became an in-home caregiver, his true calling.

Marie with her three sons
Three boys!

I never found it easy to get pregnant or stay pregnant, even though I liked the actual experience of being pregnant. I experienced four miscarriages before we had another son, Kieran. Then we were shocked to discover I was pregnant at age 41...and even though we thought we were done with two children, after experiencing so much infertility, I knew Nicholas was meant to be. I tell all three of our boys that each one of them was a miracle.

After ear/brain surgery with the boys
After my ear/brain surgery in 2012

In 2012, I discovered that I had a rare growth in my ear called a cholesteatoma. It was the result of my many childhood ear infections, and it was basically rotting away my ear bones. It also ate into my dura, the lining of my brain.

Over the next 5 years I had to have four ear surgeries, one of those also being a brain surgery. Ear surgeries are incredibly painful to recover from, and the brain surgery was the worst. On the podcast I share how I discovered my natural resilience, before I had to have surgery #4.

Marie and her coworker
With my buddy Melissa, the last CH2M work trip

In 2018, CH2M was acquired by a much larger company. In the last few years I worked there, I'd loved working as a sustainability and corporate citizenship communications manager, but I was working for two toxic bosses who were abusive to my extremely talented coworker.