It is amazing how victories can be small – even invisible to others – and can manifest in the darkest of situations and times, and yet still have a major impact. This past week, that truth was brought home to me yet again, as I shared a stage with a number of very prominent women leaders in health. I was fortunate enough to be part of a panel discussion at the Women’s Healthcare Innovation and Leadership Showcase sponsored by the Metro (NY/NJ/CT) chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association .
On that panel were very smart women who are passionate about changing the world of healthcare. Two, in particular, spoke forcefully and eloquently about the seemingly small, individual efforts that—when multiplied—can change the world.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, President of Merck Vaccines and the former Director of the Centers for Disease Control, spoke of scrubbing toilets in a small African village and realizing that clean water and empowered mothers in this village could change the world. She talked about women who had nothing finding ways to fight cervical cancer by working together with community support. In the midst of the poverty and squalor of a small village in Africa, Dr. Gerberding saw hope and strength in the women she met and worked with.
Dr. Anne Beal, Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer for the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, remembered a poor single woman, who—upon discovering she was pregnant—spent weeks and weeks fighting her way through the system to obtain Medicaid coverage so she could receive the right prenatal care. Finally, at 24 weeks of pregnancy, she saw the doctor for the first time—and discovered she was carrying triplets. Dr. Beal spoke of that woman’s great strength, and of her ability to obtain care for herself and for her new family when she delivered prematurely. In a situation that some would find hopeless, Dr. Beal and that brave mother saw triumph.
In both of these leaders’ stories, I could hear the satisfaction and joy each had in helping these women in the worst situations achieve small victories. We were not talking about dramatic lifesaving surgery, but rather about the commonplace issues of clean toilets, routine exams, and Medicaid coverage.
And the entire meeting was energized by their work and their words. These moving stories made me think about my own personal journey and the fact that I was most inspired by playing a small role in helping someone find the “victories of the soul” as described by that great writer, Elie Wiesel. While I was in college, I taught guitar to children with brain injuries. My talent at guitar was such that I could only teach someone who had physical disorders of coordination (which is why I am not playing guitar on stage these days, but talking instead). When I saw a child’s satisfaction at mastering a note, I did not know that I was working to change the world, but helping those young people master motor control and gain confidence was earth- shaking.
My sister has recounted her own experience as a special education teacher, helping a small child in a wheelchair at Halloween. That little boy—dressed in his costume—came to her class in his wheelchair for their Halloween party. He was so excited about the costume! When my sister greeted him and told him what a great costume it was, he asked, “How did you know it was me?” He was not, at that moment, a sick child confined to a wheelchair; he was just a kid in a costume acting like any other kid.
When I was in practice, I often treated patients who were terminally ill. I was given the privilege of being with people at their time of greatest need, sharing their fears and their hopes, helping them communicate with their families, and helping them feel valued and heard by those they cared about in their last days and hours. The victories I saw as they spent their last days with those they loved were inspiring.
My wife (a specialist in clinical genetics) helps parents every day whose baby is born with a severe genetic illness, often terminal, as they struggle to accept that reality and create new hopes for their child—if that child survives—and for future children. When she sees an older child with severe disabilities and greets the child playfully—as a child and not as a “specimen” with severe impairments—parents understand that she sees their son or daughter as a unique person. Those are huge victories for the entire family.
Good, experienced clinicians —and health policy leaders like Drs. Gerberding and Dr. Beal--know this secret almost instinctively: When you help people achieve small triumphs, victories of the soul and spirit, you help them achieve higher quality care—and you also save money for the entire healthcare system. When that villager is able to help her community get clean water, the entire health of the community improves. When the mother of triplets can advocate for herself in the confusing and difficult systems of healthcare and health benefits, the care her children will receive is better, and the chance of those triplets ending up in the hospital for prolonged stays drops dramatically. When the family of a terminally ill child is able to avoid unnecessary, often uncomfortable tests and procedures--and the parents can hold their baby for those last precious hours instead, it is better for the parents, the child and the healthcare system.
At Accolade, I am privileged to have helped build a system that helps people every day in small ways. We help people get those small victories every single day—the victories that allow them to improve their health, live their lives, and maintain autonomy over their own bodies and their own decisions. I get to play a part of the interactions our Health Assistants have daily. I know that as we help each of those people in small ways, we are changing their individual worlds and helping the broader health system and community, as well.