First Person

June 24, 2024

From ‘what happened’ to ‘what now:’ How one VUMC News & Communications writer became part of her own story about the Vanderbilt Health Coaching Program

Danny Bonvissuto set out to write about the Vanderbilt Health Coaching Program. Then the program manager offered to show her how health coaches draw out intrinsic motivation in their clients, aka patients, to get to what Danny dubbed the Next Right Thing.

(photos by Donn Jones)

As a public relations specialist for VUMC News & Communications, I write stories for various departments or “beats” across the enterprise. People reach out with a topic they’d like to publicize, I write about it, and, after a little editorial and photographic magic, it’s published in VUMC News, Voice or one of our magazines. Their story gets attention, and I get to make a living as a full-time writer, which is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.  

I write these stories, but I’m not part of them — or I wasn’t until Kelli Watson, RN, NBC-HWC, asked me to highlight the Vanderbilt Health Coaching Program.  

As part of her goal to feel better in her own body, writer Danny Bonvissuto walks along the Richland Park Greenway. (photo by Donn Jones) 

The original plan was to write a straight news story about the program, which is part of the Osher Center for Integrative Health and approved by the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching (NBHWC). It’s geared toward health care professionals who want to either practice as an independent Nationally Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC), a Nurse Coach-Board Certified (NC-BC), or to enhance a current health care role by obtaining the skills to facilitate patients to better self-manage health and optimize wellness.  

According to Kelli, who’s the program manager, the program has two phases and has two cohorts a year, with no more than 21 people in each. In the first phase, which is eight months long and begins online Aug. 25, they work together on group skills calls and practice the skills. The trainees also meet in small groups to walk through a full series of health coaching sessions through the perspectives of coach, client and an observer providing feedback on their skills.  

“This is an exciting time because professionals who’ve been burnt out and disheartened in their roles start to see what they’ve known all along but didn’t have the tools to put into action: That is to better connect with patients in a way that elicits sustainable change,” Kelli said. 

The second phase is the practicum, in which students apply their skills from phase I in coaching sessions with real people, either in the clinical setting or outside of work.  

“Coaches are specifically trained to draw out intrinsic motivation but not cheerlead. They’re a partner who mirrors key aspects of the client that are individually motivational to move that client forward to an evidence-based and self-determined goal,” she said. “Clients say they’ve never had this experience in a health care environment. They get to figure out where they are now using a whole-person perspective, envision their optimal selves, and take concrete steps toward their best health and well-being in an empowered way.”  

“Clients do the work but there’s something so magic about really being seen. As health coaches, that’s what we’re trained to do. We’re trained to be nonjudgmental partners on this journey.” 

—Kelli Watson, RN, NBC-HWC, Vanderbilt Health Coaching program manager

I told Kelli that sounded wonderful, adding how nice it would be to have someone help me break down everything I want to improve about myself, help me focus on the Next Right Thing and hold my hand through the process — reminding me of who I am and what I want when I fall off or forget. After years of talk therapy, it’d be nice to focus on “what now” instead of “what happened.”  

Kelli mentioned that the program often needs clients for the health coaches in training to practice with and said to let her know if I was interested. I told her right then: Sign me up. Within days she connected me with Jana Kantor, a health coach training remotely from the Northeast, for a six-session health coaching partnership.  

Is your ‘Wheel of Health’ balanced?

Our first session was one glorious hour about me, me, me. Not my husband or teenage son. Not work or the mountain of logistics I climb every day. Before the session, Jana sent me extensive paperwork to help me focus my thoughts, ranging from the basics (highest education level; birth date) to biggest stressors, my three greatest strengths and how health impacts my life. After that I rated where I am currently on all nine parts of the Wheel of Health: mind-body connection; spirit and soul; daily rhythm and balance; movement, exercise and play; food and nourishment; environment; sleep and rest; relationships and community, and compassionate self-awareness.  

Wheel of Health

“The Wheel of Health is a tool often used in Integrative Health models to help a patient visualize the complex nuances of ‘health.’ Rather than tackling all areas at once, a patient scores their current satisfaction in each area, then explores which areas are truly most important and motivating to them. This is a large departure from the conventional medical model. If they see their spiritual life and family as the most important areas to hone, these are the areas the health coach will leverage for sustainable behavior change,” Kelli said. 

As I talked, Jana mirrored back everything I said. Not word for word, like a parrot — she reframed, rephrased and emphasized the positive. It felt good to be truly and completely heard, and I loved hearing my thoughts and intentions said back to me.  

“Clients do the work but there’s something so magic about really being seen,” Kelli said. “As health coaches, that’s what we’re trained to do. We’re trained to be nonjudgmental partners on this journey.” 

Part of the goal for the first session was to create a wellness vision. I pared the million and one parts of my life I’d like to improve down to feeling better in my body. The combination of a cross-country, mid-pandemic move, buying a house and finding a school for my son while working led to significant emotional eating that ratcheted up when my otherwise healthy mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and died less than six months later. I came out on the other side of that experience feeling chewed up, spit out and, due to the weight gain, uncomfortable in my own body and clothes.  

Could goals bring … joy?

Every two weeks, Jana helped me break down the overwhelm and overthinking into bite-size pieces and make realistic goals. I started by eating breakfast before 8 a.m. instead of waiting until I was starving, then overeating. Once I was in a good place with that, she teased out my love of organization and bullet-pointing, which led to me scheduling exercise on my daily to-do list, even on the weekends, so it felt more concrete. When plotting out three-to-six-month goals, she asked a question I’d never considered: What will bring you joy?  

“This is an exciting time because professionals who’ve been burnt out and disheartened in their roles start to see what they’ve known all along but didn’t have the tools to put into action: that is to better connect with patients in a way that elicits sustainable change.” 

—Kelli Watson, RN, NBC-HWC, Vanderbilt Health Coaching program manager

Because the action items came from me, made sense to me and brought me joy, I was consistent with them. Because I was consistent with them, I was successful with them. Being successful made me feel confident and inspired me to do more.   

For example, after a few weeks of eating and exercising consistently, I told Jana I’d always wanted to be a fly girl/hip-hop dancer, like Jennifer Lopez on the ‘90s show In Living Color, but researching local classes required more time than I had to invest.  

“How much time will it really take, do you think?” she asked.  

In my head it was hours. In reality, I found an adult dance class at Nashville Ballet after five minutes of Googling. Even better: It’s in my neighborhood. I was light years behind my classmates in terms of coordination and general dance ability, but it brought me so much joy to move my body to the music.  

After six health coaching sessions, spread out every two weeks, I felt ready to say goodbye to Jana and move forward with confidence and consistency, knowing I can always go back to earlier steps if I get off track. My main takeaway is to take a goal, break it down into small steps, break it down into even smaller steps than I thought possible, and start with the smallest and simplest — not because I have to, but because I want to.