Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.
By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot and Review
Jenna Tomcek, 33
Q: What do you do for a living?
A: Currently, I manage Timekeeper Distillery. Before, I was a social worker for a nursing home that shut down in Weston. I did that for about three or four years, but was in healthcare for 17 years. This job is my first bar service job.
What prompted your transition from healthcare to the service industry?
My social work job was getting cut and I went from having 40 hours a week down to 16 hours. The company I had worked for was continuously cutting and the system of Medicare and Medicaid is getting more complex and resources are becoming less and less for social workers. After so many years in health care and seeing the nursing home shut down abruptly, I needed a break and needed extra money. I had gotten a job cocktailing here at the time because I needed money. When the nursing home closed, I already had this job and slowly moved up to managing a few months into it. I haven’t left because the stress is a lot different. It’s different sitting in a room with people when they forget to follow a care plan and residents are in danger compared to making a drink wrong and putting too much lime juice in it. Those are, by far, two different spectrums of the stress level. I did try going back to being a social worker part time earlier this year and I could still see the burnout from the stress. A lot of skills transferred over into this job and I haven’t found a job back in healthcare that I wanted to pursue.
What was one of the hardest moments of your life?
Hands down; my dad’s death. He died back in 2011 about two weeks after my 26th birthday. He had gotten unexpectedly sick. He had sarcoma from Agent Orange in Vietnam. He went to the hospital, had surgery, and it felt like he had a really long hospital journey. He was there for 68 days and was in the ICU for four weeks because he was in an induced coma because of how big the tumor was and had to cut his stomach open. He moved into the IMCU when he was starting to heal, but his body went into organ failure. A week before that, my grandpa had gotten sick and passed away as well. In a week, my grandpa and my father both passed away. That was always my worst fear because I’m very close to my parents. He was the rock in our family and made sure everything was taken care of.Oddly enough, he had already talked to a lot of people about if something happened to him, what to do. After he passed, when we had to call insurance and car places to get things switched over, they already knew what was happening. My dad had already prepared for death before he died, even though he didn’t know he was going to die.
He didn’t have any other health issues prior to this occurring?
No, it was 100% from Agent Orange from Vietnam and was his risk factor for sarcoma. It’s really scary because at the time, the military didn’t accept Agent Orange as a “disability.” A lot of Vietnam stories are coming out again and the big thing today is Agent Orange creating problems in the children of those exposed to Agent Orange and genetic defects that could happen and be passed onto my siblings and me from my dad having it. You don’t really know until you grow older.
How old was he?
He was 68 when he passed away. New studies are just occurring on the research on genetic defects from Agent Orange, but you can’t find anything from back in the day.
What was one of your hardest ages growing up?
I would say around the time my dad died. Before that, I had a series of friends who I lost; a friend who died in a car accident, a friend who had fallen down the stairs, a friend who died in a skiing accident and then my dad got sick. It was a death one after the other. Before that, you live a free life with no worries and fears and feel invincible. Once your friends start dying, it changes your life drastically because you realize you don’t always have a second chance with that person; it was when life was becoming short.
You think you have all this time because you’re in your 20s or 30s, but when you start losing people, you start to think about it more.
Yeah, and it was the hardest to transition through and understand. I had to go through a lot of grief counseling, therapy, and a lot of seminars to figure out how to live life after that. After my dad’s and my grandpa’s death, I had a best friend who overdosed and passed away. There were still those moments that still happened, but they were a lot easier to deal with because of that transition at 25 and 26 where I was still learning how to continue on and deal. The way I was in relationships had changed. If I had gotten into a fight or argument, my theory was, “Life is too short, let’s figure this out now.” I’m a little more short, blunt, and direct with people now. I don’t have time to “waste” anymore and I try to focus on what is more important than surface level issues.
What did you learn about that time in your life?
I learned a lot about grief. I know I can take horrible situations now with the confidence that if something happens, I know what to do to handle it. I didn’t have that confidence before when I started losing people because I didn’t know how to function without them. Now, I’ve had years that I have been without them and recognize change. The only constant thing in life is change and once you realize that, you can flex to many situations. One thing I’m good at, is moving from problem to problem without seeming stressed about it even if they are stressful moments. I think the important part is being knowledgeable about your feelings and admitting that you’re sad because people don’t admit that. I deal with anxiety and depression often and I have to remind people I deal with it because sometimes I’m so happy and functional, but have to step back and realize it’s okay to not be fine.
What has been one of the most memorable moments of your career?
The most memorable would be when I transitioned into being a social worker. I was a dementia program coordinator at the time and my boss had offered me a job at a different facility in Marshfield. That was one of the best moments because I didn’t know where I was going in my career and didn’t want to stay as a caregiver or activities person, so that gave me that leap. I got the job and transitioned into a 100-bed facility and was the only social worker there. It was reaffirming that I actually knew what I was doing and that I could walk into the job and immediately start doing things I thought were right and they were. It was one of those moments where you’re smarter than you think you are. That changed where my career went in healthcare. I always advocated for my residents and I believe that’s what propelled me into social work. It’s about advocating for the rights of your residents and doing things correctly. The experience helped gain leadership skills, manage teams, and run a nursing home. I eventually went back to school for social work and have a degree in psychology with an emphasis in human services from UW-Stevens Point. Another favorite moment: I am a singer, so I always sang with my residents. One time, I had a 102-year-old lady sing “Les Mis” with me and she was wheelchair bound and couldn’t do much. When the music hit, she would sing. I think that’s really touching; to see those happy moments. They are in a nursing home and you bring that happiness to them. Another time, I sang with a different resident, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and halfway through the song I’d stop singing because she would keep singing it after I stopped. Her daughter was with me and she said she had never heard her mother sing. Her mother had dementia and was in her 90s and the daughter came everyday and had never heard her mom sing except when I sat there and sang it with her mom and faded out while she continued to sing. Those were great moments; when you spend time with residents and see how much spirit and talent they still have in them and just have to find a way to bring it out.
What is one moment that changed you as a person?
I think in those moments when accidents have happened, I’ve always wondered how I would respond. The couple times accidents have happened, it made me confident based from the feedback I received. One time, my friend had her ankle sliced open and she thought I left, but two seconds later I was holding her ankle shut and holding it together while she bled. Everyone else in the moment is just standing around you wondering what to do and you take immediate action knowing what to do. I don’t know if it stems from being in healthcare and the several events I had to care for residents. Those several times of having to be a first responder before anyone else got there made me aware of how to be more calm in those situations. I had another event where I was on vacation with my friend and she had a drop in her blood sugar and she freaked out. My other two friends didn’t know what to do. My friend was grabbing my side and pinching me because she didn’t want to pass out. My friend was in diabetic shock and my other friend said how I stayed so calm and if I had not been there, they wouldn’t have known what would have happened. When I looked down at my body, I had these huge marks because she was scared for her life. We were in a hotel that wasn’t close to the lobby and I only had two minutes until she passed out to get her to a hospital. Moments like that have taught me that I’m a helper in a situation.
What would you say was one of the most memorable moments in your life?
When I was 16, my dad took us on adventures with the Boy Scouts. Even though we were in Girl Scouts, we joined the adventure crew and did all the things Boy Scouts could do. We went down to Key West and went to live on an island for three days. We did this twice; I believe I was 13 years old the first time and 15 years old the second. The first time we were there, we walked out about 50 feet in the water to get to any boat that could come close enough to the island you’re on because the water was so shallow. One of the activities was chumming the water and fishing for sharks. We’d walk out to the floating dock, chum the water around you, fish for sharks, and hop back into the water that was just chummed, full of blood, and shuffled back to the shore to scare any sharks that could bite us as we walked away. We shuffled back and washed ourselves off with Joy dish soap because we were full of salt water and blood. When we came back the second year, we started walking out to the dock to chum the waters and they had changed the rules that year because a parent was afraid of their child walking into the water after it was chummed. Being on the island and the experience of walking through chummy, bloody water is a memorable moment.
What are hobbies you enjoy?
I paint, play the ukulele, and I perform with Center Stage Band and Show Choir. I play the piano and not many people know that. I started when I was two years old and was Suzuki trained which is being trained by ear. Learning that way helped because I can listen to music and figure it out by listening to it.
How long have you been performing with Center Stage?
I joined in 2015. We put on a performance in October. It’s the main group I work with now because of my work hours and fits more into my schedule.
What is your favorite memory of living here?
I’ve lived here for a long time. Being on Center Stage gave me the ability to play my ukulele on stage. That was one of my favorite memories of being in this town because I wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise. I started teaching myself the ukulele in 2015 and that was the first time I ever played in front of a crowd and it was for about 700 people. Last year, when I did the song, “Take On Me, “ I purposefully had a moment where it was completely silent in the whole song. There was a one second break in the song and feeling the silence of captivating 700 people and having that moment of pause where you can soak it all in; I didn’t know if the break in the song was going to work, but it did.
If you had to give advice to anyone, what would it be?
Travel. This is a small town and there are many things to appreciate, but I think people get wrapped up in the fact that it’s small. You forget there’s so much more life and culture to experience. There’s more that makes you realize that people are quick to talk big and have confrontations and arguments on small things. An example is when people get angry when someone pulls out in front of them while driving and get road rage. In a big city, you have hundreds of cars trying to get you to one place. It’s those little notions and sometimes when people stay in one place for too long, they start to forget there’s other scarier things out there and we live in a very nice town.