Full transcript of ‘connection doctor’ Starla Fitch’s TEDx Talk: Connect or Die: The Surprising Power of Human Relationships at TEDxFargo conference. She is the author of the book: Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine.
Starla Fitch – Coach. Consultant. Speaker. Surgeon
You may think you have 20/20 vision, or at least you may think you could pass an eye test. But I’m going to challenge you on that today, and say that it’s likely you may not be seeing clearly at all.
I’m an ophthalmologist, and today I want to help you understand how the way you see others may be endangering your life.
You may not actually have a diagnosis of cataract, glaucoma, or macular degeneration, but I guarantee that the way you view others is distorted in the same way. And without clear vision – and I’m not talking 20/20 – it’s impossible to connect with others. We need more than our eyes to truly see.
I want to start by telling you about a friend of mine, Joe. Joe is a scrub tech in my operating room. A scrub tech’s job is to get the instruments ready for surgery and hand the surgeon what they need. Sometimes they’re mind readers, and they hand you things before you even know you need them.
In my hospital, there had been some changes: cutbacks, layoffs. They even took away the coffee pot in the nurses’ station.
Morale spiraled downward. The staff became discouraged, distant, on the edge of burnout. I’d been through burnout myself, so I knew what that was like, and I was looking for a way to help me and my team with burnout and negativity.
I decided to start a gratitude practice in the operating room. I told my team that every day we were going to each name three things we were grateful for.
At first I got pushed back big time. I would see them in the hallway making fun of me. They would be, “Oh, you’re assigned to Dr Fitch’s room today? Good luck with that. You got your grateful list ready?”
But soon nurses who weren’t even assigned to my room would pop their heads in with their three things. Anesthesiologists would text in their gratitudes from satellite locations. The positive energy was palpable.
One day, Joe came in to give another scrub tech a break. When it was his turn to name the three things he was grateful for, he just shook his head and said he couldn’t do it.
Huh!? At first I let it go. And then I said, “Wait a minute, let’s all just name three things we’re grateful for about Joe.” And we found out Joe is the one who came in and brought the warm blankets for the patients every morning. And Joe was the one that stayed late getting the rooms ready for the next day.
After we’d shared our gratitudes with Joe, I felt like we’d really gotten a glimpse of him. And he gave me this little half nod. I thought he might be smiling under his surgical mask. I couldn’t tell for sure, but his eyes were crinkling like he might be.
The way Joe was seeing things that day is similar to how people see when they have a cataract. When you look at your loved one’s face and you have a cataract, you can see their face completely, but it’s hazy, a bit like a Monet painting.
Actually, it’s exactly like a Monet painting because Monet had cataracts. I’m just saying. And the way Joe was acting that day, it’s like he was surrounded by a gauzy cotton layer, he wasn’t really connecting.
And then there’s my patient Mary. Mary came in with a persistent bump on her eyelid. She thought it was a sty. I knew as soon as I walked in that wasn’t a sty. That bump said “cancer” from across the room.
I walked in and started talking to Mary. I looked at her eyelid, and I started drawing her a little picture of the surgery I thought she needed. I told her I didn’t like the looks of it, and it could be cancer. I know as soon as I say that word, patients go numb and stop listening.
As I was talking to Mary and answering her questions, I tried to ignore the lights that were flashing out of the corner of my eye.
See, in our office, when another patient has been waiting 10 minutes, lights flash steadily. When that patient’s been waiting 20 minutes, the lights flash twice as fast.
Thirty minutes later, Mary decided to have her surgery. You can picture how Mary’s day was going. Now, picture the three other patients who were waiting to see me. Each in the exam rooms, all with their lights flashing double-time.
Now I’m in trouble before I even get started with them. If you’ve ever waited in your doctor’s office for maybe 10, 20 minutes, you can picture how Eric’s day was going. Eric was one of the patients waiting that day. When I walked in apologizing for the delay, Eric was pissed.
“Phew,” he said, “You doctors think your time is more valuable than mine. I’ve been waiting 25 minutes and I’m going to bill you for that.”
Phew! The way Eric was seeing things that day, it reminds me of how people see when they have glaucoma. When you look at your loved one’s face and you have glaucoma, you can see most of their face but you can’t always see the edges, and you can’t see the surroundings very well. All Eric was seeing is me, and how I was the problem and the cause of the delay.
He couldn’t possibly see the surroundings, and how Mary, and her cancer, something much more important, was really going on.
And then there’s me. Even as an ophthalmologist, I don’t always see clearly.
Last Friday, I did surgery on my sweet elderly patient, Mrs Brown. When I finished, I went to the waiting area to find her husband I found him all right. He was sitting over in the corner, arms tied across his chest, a big old frown on his face.
I came in and said everything went fine, his wife was doing great. He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t even quit frowning. I kept talking, but the whole time I was thinking, “What the heck? The surgery went fine, his wife is doing well, we’re not even running late today, why is he so angry?”
I was frustrated with his response. And then I saw a little tear in the corner of his eye. The way I’d been looking at Mr Brown is similar to how people see when they have macular degeneration.
When you look at your loved one’s face and you have macular degeneration, you really can’t see their face: your central vision is distorted. Sometimes you can’t even see what’s right in front of you. You can usually see the surroundings.
What I was seeing when I saw Mr Brown was his gruff exterior that made him seem angry. I wasn’t seeing his center, his heart, and how, really, he was just worried about his wife of 43 years, the whole time we were in the operating room.
It wasn’t about me at all. With our busy lives, we’re becoming blind to each other. We don’t even look up from our phones in conversation or at the dinner table.
When we have metaphorical cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration, we can’t connect at all. In my personal journey from burnout, and in my work with others, helping them love medicine again, and helping us all love our lives again, I’ve discovered that the real gift of sight is that it allows us to truly see each other and connect.
And connection can happen so easily: setting down your cell phone, expressing a gratitude, sharing the best part of your day with someone you love. And it turns out connection is good for us: it strengthens our immune system, lets us live longer, and it reduces our anxiety and depression.
In fact, lack of social connection is worse for our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. It’s not an exaggeration to say that lack of social connection can kill us.
A couple weeks ago, I was reading The Wall Street Journal. There’s a new study, just out by Brigham Young University, that said, “Social isolation increases our risk of death by 32%.”
Duke and the University of Arizona have been watching our connection go down the tubes for 30 years. Thirty years ago, we used to have at least three close friends.
Now we’re lucky if we have one close friend. And 25% of Americans say they have no one, no one to connect to or depend on. So, that amounts to about 80 million people in America that have no one.
And when I heard that number, I thought, “It’s like grains in the sand. 80 million! That’s such a big number, how can we wrap our heads around it?”
So, I want you to picture with me for a minute all the people that live in Texas, California and New York combined. Those are all the people who have no one.
Remember Joe, the scrub tech? A couple weeks after he’d been in our room, the head nurse told us that Joe had died of metastatic cancer. We didn’t even know he was sick. He’d been afraid to reach out, to connect. He hadn’t let us see him.
And all we could say is that we were grateful that we had connected to him. It changed our team forever. Seeing each other allows us to be our very best selves. It allows us to show up for each other. And it can allow us to save each other, whether saving each other happens in the operating room, in the office, at the dinner table, or on the TED stage.
In the Natal tribes of South Africa, members greet each other with “Sawubona,” which means, “I see you.” Their response is “ngikhona,” which means, “I am here.”
As an ophthalmologist, and as your connection doctor, I want to teach you how to save lives.
So here is my prescription for you: open your eyes, look at each other, and make the connection today.
Sawubona, I see you.