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COVID Crisis

By Mario Pistilli

I am not sure what the situation will be by the time this prints and reaches your hands. It is now March 25, as I sit to think about this. The words are not coming easily as there is so much to do and so much uncertainty.

I, like many of you, am trying to balance work and life in ways I never really had to before. I am, of course, fearful for my own family and thinking of my constant exposure that I may then bring home. My son is in another state, in college, and staying at home in his apartment. I am constantly worried for him. Does he have enough food? Will he get sick and us not be there? I am worried for my staff. How many will fall ill? How will they cope financially? I frankly worry about myself. Will I get really sick, and who will take care of my family if I do?

I am sure that each of us is facing so many challenges and in the face of all of this we must lead. We must lead bravely, calmly and strongly as others are looking to us for answers and for their own courage. Even if inside we are filled with our own stress and worry, outwardly we must continue for those that rely on us.

It reminds me of a leadership exercise I participated in this past summer. They took a small group of us to a local sailing class for the day to teach us to sail. We had no idea this was the plan for the day, we were not told ahead of time. We did not have a chance to study beforehand nor were we given a list of things to prepare. I was partnered with two other people and none of us had ever sailed before. We started with some preliminary lessons on the dock. At the end of the lessons none of us had any clue what we just learned or how to apply it. We all entered our boat completely confused about wind directions and tacking and jibing were still foreign words to us. The three of us got in the boat with our skipper and he explained step by step how to prepare the boat to leave and guided us out of the dock. With his guidance, we soon got out of the channel into open water and then he said, “OK, you all are going to sail the boat.”

We were terrified as we still felt like we had no clue. We each took a role – one person on the tiller to steer, one person on the line that controls the main sail, and one person on the two ropes that control the jib sail (the smaller triangular sail at the front). The skipper gave us minimal directions and forced us to use the nautical terms that we had just learned and still didn’t fully understand. Every 15 minutes or so we had to switch roles and rotate our position on the boat. I wanted to admire the scenery of the beautiful Santa Monica Bay, but I was too busy trying not to screw up and pay attention to everything around me. He told us we needed to learn to feel the wind, but that was not happening for me. I never realized until now, how much I learned that day.

Sometimes we have to face things unprepared. Nobody was prepared for this. Trust in yourself and what you do know. Trust in your experience that even though you have never faced a viral epidemic, you know how to take care of people and you know how to lead people. Most of all, what I learned through sailing, is that we have a tremendous capacity to learn quickly and adapt. You need to draw on that now.

We need to rely on others. There is no way I could have sailed that boat on my own and I had to rely on others to do their parts. We all had to do this with the understanding that none of us fully knew what we were doing, but I was so focused on what I had to do that I had to trust them.

Give people space to make mistakes. Just as you are struggling to navigate your role so is everyone else. I have been faced with many questionable judgement calls of others that do not fully understand what we do. Like directing my staff to wear non-MRI safe PAPR hoods in the MRI suite. We need to have patience with each other.

Be a cheerleader. Each of us needed encouragement that day and it made the world of difference to have my boatmates tell me good job. Those around you need that right now, let those around you know you appreciate all they are doing when times are difficult.

Talk through your challenges. On the boat that day we were not ashamed to admit what we were struggling with. Ask your team, what it is they are worried about or struggling with and talk through it with them.

Tell the truth. Now is not the time to “fake it till you make it.” Now is the time to admit what you don’t know and to be honest. I don’t know what the future is going to bring, but I do know that we care about our patients and our staff and we are going to do everything we can to keep them all safe.

Stay positive. I know this is hard, but you need to stay positive. When I took the tiller of the boat that day, having no clue what I was doing, I knew that the other two people didn’t need me freaking out. We have to let our teams know that we are positive that we will get through this and focus in on our strengths and opportunities.

The bottom line is that this is the time that leaders need to just lead. We are the captains of our respective ships with a boat full of people relying on us to guide them safely to shore. The wind is uncertain, and the water is perilous, but never-the-less the boat is still moving. We can either crumble and complain about the wind or be a good captain and trim the sails and keep sailing. So, to all my dear colleagues, your families and your respective teams, I wish you calmer waters ahead and all a chance to finally sit back and enjoy the scenery.

Mario Pistilli, CRA, MBA, FACHE, FAHRA, is administrative director for imaging and imaging research at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He is an active member and volunteers time for ACHE and HFMA organizations. He is currently serving on the AHRA national Board of Directors. He can be contacted at mpistiili@chla.usc.edu.

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