October 26, 2017

Health Care and the Power of Disillusionment

We know that health care has plenty of challenges. As an industry, there’s one problem we desperately need to talk about and address: the mental health of the health care worker.

It’s not like leaders aren’t doing anything about morale in health care. We roll out internal campaigns, bone-up our HR initiatives, find new soft perks to bestow, give raises and promotions, and try to check-in with clinicians and support staff alike as often as we can.

But ultimately, as my mom always said, our happiness is our responsibility and not determined by others.

So, we too as individuals try to stem the tide of doubt and frustration that comes with working in one of the world’s most demanding industries. We go to conferences, buy self-help books, listen to inspiring podcasts and usually just try to remain positive.

All of these initiatives and tips make sense but as Americans we suffer from the affects of doing too much to avoid suffering itself.

I believe that EVERY emotion can serve a purpose. Whether it is nature or god, some entity gave us the ability to feel rage, despair and irreverence for a reason.

These negative emotions aren’t just darkness overcoming us. To me, these negative emotions are like a “Check Engine” light on your car’s dashboard. We can’t identify exactly what is wrong, but our body is telling us to pull over, pop the hood and see what the hell is going on.

This isn’t theory for me. Disillusionment changed my life—and may have even saved it. Here’s a little story to explain how.

Finding Home

My friend’s uniform was immaculate. Every ribbon was in place, like a human recruiting poster. The brightly colored squares denoting his campaigns, achievements and sacrifices had multiplied greatly since I saw him last. Today, the Corps was giving him another ribbon. But this Purple Heart would be his last medal.

Bryan was my protégé. As I was preparing to leave the Marine Corps, I trained him to replace me.

A few years had passed since I saw him last. He went his way. I tried to find mine.

He was usually in the desert. Or chasing insurgents through filthy side streets of cities whose names few Americans  learn how to pronounce.

Meanwhile, I traded my boots for sensible dress shoes and spreadsheets. It was parades of working lunches permeated by weekends in the bathroom of a Target store changing my infant son’s diaper.

Until a friend called.

Bryan had run his last convoy.

His body would be home soon and the Marines who had transitioned to civilian life were going to be by his mom’s side when he arrived.

A few days later, I was standing above him while other Marines and family waited behind me to pay their last respects.

What followed was a wash of emotions. But among the cocktail of helplessness, anger and survivors guilt, I was most struck by how disillusioned I felt.

Bryan wouldn’t be the first brother or sister in arms that we would lose…nor would he be the last.

And Marines get that. But I was tired of the funerals. Tired of being afraid for the phone to ring.

It was the how and why that washed me and my fellow Marines in doubt. Now four years on from the invasion of Iraq, we all knew there was never going to be any discovery of weapons of mass destruction. I knew the war’s rationale was dubious at best.

I was angry with our government for getting us into this mess. I was angry with our generals for prosecuting the war foolishly. I was angry with our enemies for using gender and faith as weapons. I was angry with the civilians around me for being more concerned about Paris Hilton than Bryan’s mom.

Hugs and chugs on the arm were exchanged as we all boarded flights or got into cars and tried to return to the daily grind of what was for many of us a largely alien, civilian world.

Swimming In It

Weeks passed. Losing weight and sleep, and honestly doing heavy damage to many personal relationships due to my demeanor, I finally sought out some professional counseling.

In one of these sessions, my therapist gave me some advice that I would like to share with some of my other personal heroes, the health care worker.

She told me something like this:

“Your disillusionment is a gift. It’s not about the powers around you making you disillusioned. It’s about you. Your disillusionment is opening the door for you to see who you really are. That’s why you have to swim in it for a while.”

So we swam in it.

We asked again and again, not what the feeling of disillusionment said about the situation (or say, the government) but what did the disillusionment say specifically about me?

I learned that my feeling of helplessness was not about the war but about how my life had changed. I went from a world of high purpose to a world of meetings about trying to sell more widgets.

My disillusionment was telling me that I was much more of an idealist than I realized. I needed a job that was more of a calling and I needed to be with people who shared that passion.

I learned that my survivor’s guilt was just enduring love for my people. I accepted that while painful, that love was a good thing.

I learned that my disdain for civilians was more about my own assimilation into real life (whatever the hell that is) and that I was trying too hard to straddle both worlds instead of accepting that I was and always will be a Marine.

This gift wasn’t optimism. It was answers.

It came only when I accepted how disillusioned I was and decided to do all of the anguishing work to dissect that despair.

When you truly embrace that disillusionment, it’s not only a mental or emotional endeavor, but you even feel release physically.

Over a period of months to years, the disillusionment drove great changes in my life and ultimately brought me to work in our industry. And with apologies to our Millennial friends for the dated, 90’s reference, just as Alantis Morsette did, I’d like to say THANK YOU to that disillusionment.

Reaching the Shore

The past few months I have seen some of my closest friends and colleagues leave health care. And almost all of the others remaining are expressing heaps of frustration and sometimes, even despair.

It is crazy in our industry right now. And health care marketers are in the middle of the fight. We’re taking casualties.

I too have had a rough year in health care. I’ve toyed with a little disillusionment.

I’m angry that health care isn’t adapting to patient wants and needs fast enough. I’m angry that too many hospitals only want to talk about themselves rather than those they exist to serve. I’m angry that politicians are weaponizing access to care. I’m angry at the greed that infects too much of our industry.

So guess what? I’m choosing to swim in it.

I’m asking myself what this means and what I can do with it. Whenever I can, I’m choosing to focus on the aspects of health care that mean the most to me. I’m seeking to work with those who inspire me and minimizing my contact with those who don’t.

I’m causing trouble.The good kind of trouble that sparks change.

But I’m also talking to others about it. That’s why I’m writing this.

When I said what I said to him, I pivoted from Bryan’s casket into an adjacent room filled with so many of the Marines and sailors that I grew up with. We were truly the only ones who could understand one another at that moment.

And it meant everything to me to be with them. As always, we picked each other up and carried on together.

Over the years, I’ve grown to feel a little sorry for most civilians, as they don’t know how it feels to know that the people around you would jump into a burning vehicle to pull you out. Ironically, it’s that compassion that makes Marines so feared around the world. We will not stop fighting for each other until the last of us has fallen.

As good as we can be at taking care of patients, we sure could do a better job of taking care of each other.

We need to do that more as comrades in this industry. No more sugar coating our problems. Sometimes we need to scream at each other. Sometimes we need to cry. Sometimes we need to embrace the power of giving up on the things that will never change. Sometimes we need to stop and just get really angry.

We need talk a little less about ROI, social media strategy, integrated continuum of care and all of the other hospital/marketing speak. We need to talk more about the real things happening in our hearts.

A good podcast is all well and good but until we get honest about the impact this job is having on us, until we start leaning on each other more, until we decide to get real and swim in it, we will always feel this way.

And trust me, for all of the widest, deepest, darkest rivers that disillusionment can be, if you do decide to just jump in and swim across, you’ll love the new you that reaches the shore.

I hope to see you all there.