A Central Calling
The varied career of Gwen Mayes '78 ultimately centers on medicine and society
When asked what advice she would give to people just starting out in life, Gwen Mayes responds, “Remember, luck follows those in motion.” It is a principle she has applied to her life since graduating from Transy in 1978 with a double major in biology and pre-medicine.
Mayes works in Washington, D.C., as director of government relations for Abiomed, a company that develops, manufactures, and markets advanced medical technologies designed to assist or replace the pumping function of the failing heart. She is dedicated to her mission, which is to ensure that Medicare and HMOs cover expenses associated with the devices. She began her career, however, as a respiratory therapist, and excelled in a variety of positions involving public health, journalism, speaking, and law before landing in her present position at Abiomed.
“It’s fair to say that my career path looks a little like a paper airplane at times,” Mayes said. “It’s taken different shapes and sizes.”
After earning her master’s degree in medical science with a specialty in advanced respiratory diseases from Emory University in 1980, Mayes first worked as a physician’s assistant in a surgical intensive care unit. She then became director of education and transplant coordinator for LifeLink of Georgia, a non-profit organ and tissue recovery organization, where she became a recognized expert in organ donation and transplantation, and a public health analyst.
Mayes has also been a freelance writer on wellness issues, a wellness columnist and feature writer for Today’s Woman magazine, and a popular conference speaker on health and legal issues.
In 2000, Mayes received her juris doctor degree with honors from the University of Maryland School of Law, and was later appointed executive director for the Office of Women’s Physical and Mental Health with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health Services. Mayes later worked as project officer for U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello, practiced law, and, for several years, ran her own consulting firm.
While at first glance it may appear that her varied professional pursuits have taken her down a winding road, closer examination shows that Mayes has always stayed true to a central calling.
“I can look at all of these endeavors and see that they were all part of a master plan, a mosaic,” she said. “When I look back at every career and every job, there’s been a common theme of healthcare, health policy, law, and how society interfaces with critical medical decisions.”
It was a calling she first answered as a Transy student when she read Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s On Death and Dying and became interested in informed consent and health rights issues.
“I was so excited when Transy offered a new course called Medical Sociology,” she said. “The course work included looking at issues around grief, death and dying, and the right to die. We visited nursing homes and wrote our own wills. This was in the 1970s, and even then I was very intrigued by the interplay between medicine and how decisions were made about healthcare, and whether it was the government or society making those decisions.”
The pull that Mayes felt toward medicine and law, and the area where the two intersect, stumped her career counselors but made perfect sense to her. She knew she wasn’t willing to give up one passion at the expense of the other.
“I had a medical background and I chose to go to law school,” she said. “I didn’t want to pick one over the other. It’s taken a while before it all blended together; it didn’t happen overnight. I feel like I’m a cake that’s been in the oven a while.”
Listening to the call
Mayes, who headlined a women’s health month program for students and community members at Transy in 2002, said that when she’s asked to talk to young people, she tells them, “It’s important to pay attention to what calls your name.”
It is by listening to that call that Mayes was led to her current position. In the early 1990s, she was working for the federal government in Washington, D.C., when she read a report about the artificial heart program that was still being developed. She was fascinated and began spending her spare time reading about the artificial heart and the future of the program.
She mentioned to one of her colleagues that the most exciting job she could imagine for herself 10 or 15 years down the road would be to work on Medicare reimbursement for the program.
It was roughly 15 years later, in the summer of 2005, when Mayes was living in Louisville and practicing law, that the job specifically aimed at getting Medicare coverage and reimbursement for the artificial heart made by Abiomed came open.
“It’s really almost magical that this has come about,” she said. “We all have persistent interests and visions and ideas that we hold on to, and certainly for me, it’s a joy to have a job that pulls all of my interests together.”
Even when she didn’t know how the journey she was on would lead to fulfillment of her goals, Mayes never lost sight of her intention, which was with her from the beginning of her studies and remained with her when she shifted her focus from the study of medicine to the study of law.
“In law school, I wrote a research paper in a bio ethics class on the informed consent process for the artificial heart program,” she said. “This was long before I worked for Abiomed, long before I was back in Washington. It’s fascinating to me how these events unfold. Your intention about what you want to do in your profession has a real power.”
It’s a lesson that she aims to pass on. “It’s a hope I have, to instill some confidence in younger people that the things they’re interested in today are really there for a reason and that there’s a way to cultivate that interest. To some degree, choosing a career is not unlike picking up the newspaper every day for a week. If you flip through the paper, you’ll identify that there are certain topics, certain issues, that you naturally gravitate to, and that’s not by mistake. My bet is whatever passion draws you to that topic will be with you for the rest of your life.”
A multi-disciplinary education
Education is important to Mayes, and she credits her liberal arts background for exposing her to many areas of study and the idea that she could embrace more than one.
“Liberal arts gives you exposure to a lot of different things, and that helped me broaden my horizons and whet my appetite,” she said.
At Transy, Mayes was a resident assistant for two years, president of the Student Activities Board, and held offices in Phi Mu sorority.
“I enjoyed my four years at Transylvania,” Mayes said. “It was a wonderful community. I got very involved when I was in school, and I think the exposure to leadership positions at a young age helped to shape me tremendously.”
Mayes describes herself as a fairly typical pre-med student. “I thought I was going to go to medical school,” she said. “Events didn’t unfold that way, and then I headed out on this kind of winding path, but I always looked at Transy as a foundation and a good friend,” Mayes said.
She said her Transy professors provided her with advice over the years, including chemistry professor Gerald Seebach, whom Mayes visited while she was in graduate school, and the late chemistry professor Monroe Moosnick, who was her adviser and mentor.
“Even 10 years after I graduated, I would still go back and seek the advice of Dr. Moosnick,” she said.
Weaving the threads
Mayes remains passionate about a variety of healthcare issues, but these days, her immediate goal is to continue to establish and develop the Washington office for Abiomed. “I’m the first person in this job,” she said. “It’s a new venture for me, and it’s a new venture for the company. I want to build a strong voice for the company and these products and the patients who benefit from them.”
She has not abandoned her passion for writing, either. In her spare time, she teaches writing workshops, and she entertains the long term goal of writing fiction in a way that would help people understand the medical challenges that are facing all of us.
“I always tell people I’d love to be ‘Jane Grisham’,” she said. “People learn from reading good fiction, and cutting-edge medical and legal issues, like improving women’s access to healthcare, and making room in society for the artificial heart, and genetic discrimination, would make for spicy reading. I hope to pursue that passion along with what I’m doing in Washington.”
Luck follows those in motion, and Mayes shows no signs of complacency. She has found in her latest accomplishment, however, a way to bring her interests together in a satisfying combination. She is proving that luck also follows determination.
“There’s a beautiful song by Carole King called Tapestry,” she said. “It’s about how you can look at the back of a tapestry and it looks like random fibers, random weavings, but you turn it over and it creates a beautiful picture. I would definitely say my career and professional development have been along those lines. If you looked at each endeavor in isolation, there might not appear to be a common theme, but when you put them together, the theme emerges. It’s comforting and certainly exciting for me to have put those pieces together.”