Who are you? Why are you here?

Christopher Walden, VP & CIO, HealthAlliance Hospital

Christopher Walden, VP & CIO, HealthAlliance Hospital

I recently attended CHIME Boot Camp for healthcare CIOs. Tim Stettheimer, SVP/CIO at Ascension Health, posed a question to all the attendees: who are you and why are you here? The expectation was not that we would answer it right there on day one, but rather that we would ponder this for the days to come. Pondering it is just what I have been doing.

Before I could get to the ‘who am I’ part, I felt my mind answering the ‘why are you here’ portion of the question. Just to be clear he was not asking why was I at boot camp; the question was why am I in healthcare. For me, the answer lies between a story about life and a story about death.

On February 19, 2007, my two daughters were born; one weighing 680 grams (about 1.5 lbs) and the other 1,388 grams (2.5 lbs). For three months they fought to live, each breath a victory, each partial ounce of formula consumed was monumental. They both had breathing tubes, feeding tubes, IV lines, catheters, and telemetry monitoring 24 x 7. As a parent, each time an alarm bell would sound the hair on the back of my next would stand up. It was through the compassion, love, knowledge, and skill of the doctors and nurses, coupled with innovative technology and countless prayers, that three months later my wife and I were able to bring our little ones home. Death was defeated and we remain grateful to the men and women who provided care to our girls.

Flipping forward almost 6 years. I found myself spending time yet again in the hospital with someone I loved. My father had been diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma and was receiving chemotherapy. Each visit required an overnight stay and each time my Mom and I had to advocate for him to receive competent care. We never felt safe leaving him because, sadly, the quality of care fluctuated based on who was on duty during that hospital shift. Within 10 months, the cancer had won and he had to be rushed by ambulance to the ER for the last time.

I was thrust right into the middle of our dysfunctional US healthcare system — not as a healthcare leader, but as a patient’s family member. I picked up the phone and dialed 911 and I uttered the words, “Please send an ambulance. My father is dying.” A few moments later the paramedics arrived. I explained to them the situation and requested they bring him to the hospital where his physician was also serving that night as the ER attending. Protocol would not allow that, so we ended up at the hospital where my father had been receiving his chemo. He was rushed into the back, barely coherent by this time. The nurses stripped him down, the doctors performed their assessment, and no one even looked at his past medical history.

I stood over them almost by force explaining what had led to my father’s current condition. I even stood over the physician as he typed his notes into the EMR. Even though every visit to that facility was right there in the record, he made his decisions based on the man he saw lying on that gurney. Right there at his fingertips was key information and he ignored it — either because he was unclear on how to find it or perhaps because he did not trust it.

The healthcare system I worked in each day was failing my father. His dignity as he lay there dying was being poked and prodded away. It was clear the ER doctor and nurses were in heroic mode. After all isn’t that what we expect when we go to the ER — to be fixed; to be saved? In this case I had to practically stand on the bed and say, ‘Time out! Read his history. No more tests, no more fluids — someone apply medical logic here, please! All the technology in that ER was not going to change his outcome. It was his time to die. I guess by now you can tell why I am here, serving in healthcare.

Who am I? There are some fundamental characteristics to who I am. I am a husband, a father, a son, and a man with strong faith. And then there are temporary characteristics; those required of you in significant moments in life, like being a patient advocate to help those you love live and to ease others into the realization that death is near.

What am I doing here? I believe life has shaped me for this moment. I am here, in healthcare, to be a part of the change. I am here to positively influence the experiences that all human beings have when they or their loved one needs care. I am here because I believe everyone has the fundamental right to quality healthcare. Mediocrity in healthcare is not moral. I am here because technology coupled with know-how and compassion does make a difference in the lives that we serve.

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