December 30, 2021

My New Year’s resolution: Rounds — A message from Dr. Jeff Balser, President and CEO

Jeff Balser, MD, PhD

I typically avoid New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps it’s because I typically fail miserably in maintaining whatever I commit to – whether it’s losing a few pounds, or drinking less coffee. It’s not that the resolutions aren’t things I need to do. I just get preoccupied by the myriad challenges – expected and unexpected – and kind of forget all about it.

So in mid-December I was reflecting on the crushing impact of COVID-19 surges over the past year and wondering what might be next – Omicron was raging in South Africa but hadn’t yet landed in Nashville. And then Melinda and I were awakened in the middle of the night with emergency alerts on our cell phones. Tornado warnings.  It seemed so strange in December, but there it was – the local TV news showed several concerning “rotations” around the Nashville area.

While Nashville was largely spared this tragedy, our region was certainly not.  With the largest death toll in nearby Western Kentucky, VUMC had 30 level-I trauma patients from the storms. Through ingenuity and flexibility, our trauma teams, operating rooms, and nurses were able to meet all the urgent care needs while supporting over 70 patients already on the trauma service.

It felt like déjà vu. My mind went back to March of 2020, when tornados ripped through the Southeast, killing people and damaging a precious VUMC supply facility just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic landed in Nashville. What are the odds of having a tornado followed by a pandemic surge, twice in two years?

Yet here we are. Two years into the pandemic we never saw coming, and now our 5th surge – and a tornado belt migrating eastward from Kansas, Oklahoma and other midwestern states to the mid southern regions of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Then I saw the incredible article this week in the Tennessean highlighting the career of Dr. Terri White, our pediatrician who spends 6 months a year in war torn countries caring for children in desperate conditions. Terri looks the kind of tragedy most of us can’t imagine in the face, again and again, and keeps coming back for more. All while sleeping on the ground. She is nourished partly by serving where there is such dire need, but also by what she calls “a pure relationship” with the patients she encounters. Terri isn’t just surviving. She finds herself “skipping and dancing on the way to work.”

Wow. I wondered how someone could maintain that resilience through years of close exposure to children suffering in such gut-wrenching conditions.

Then I recalled something I learned several years ago about happiness and relationships. For over 80 years, the Harvard Study for Adult Development has followed hundreds of people – first Harvard male graduates (in those days, the school was single gender), and later broader groups of men and women including cohorts living in the Boston inner city. Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health trajectories and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage. Meaningful relationships were by far the leading predictor that sustained happiness. Not only did those ties buffer people from life’s disappointments and stresses, but they were better predictors of happiness than money, social class, IQ, or even genes.

So what’s the takeaway as we look toward another year which seems to be starting with more COVID than we bargained for? In our pulse survey this fall, with over 60% participation from our 30,000-member VUMC workforce, you were clear – we are stressed. We feel more anxiety and are experiencing more burnout than before the pandemic began. But there was a second, very consistent result. We said that our co-workers – our relationships at work – were by far the most important factor sustaining us.

I’ve been at Vanderbilt since 1984, with a hiatus in the early 90’s for residency training, and I have always felt that our culture is distinctive – more than special. When I give speeches I call it our “secret sauce.” It caused me to choose Vanderbilt medical school when I was 22 years old. It was the main reason I returned after residency. And it’s what I inevitably hear from people who move their careers here from institutions all across the country.

Yes, the regional culture is warm and friendly, but there is something more than so-called “Nashville nice.” We are safeguarding a rare, century-long ethic that transcends “nice,” and is much more about prioritizing relationships with people. Those we serve, and those who serve with us, in good times and bad.

It’s a remarkable culture that does the extraordinary in times of crisis. And the happiness studies tell us that our commitment to relationships not only sustains those around us. It sustains us!

So as we launch into 2022 amid the of chaos of COVID and myriad other stresses, there is something we can all do to sustain one another and ourselves. We can recommit to relationships – with those we serve, and especially to one another. As we do, the culture we have nourished at Vanderbilt over decades will become even stronger.

Happy New Year to everyone. And if you catch me in the hallway and I look preoccupied or distracted, don’t hesitate to remind me – concentrate on relationships!