On Leading During the COVID-19 Crisis

blog pic Breanna

I remember this moment so vividly: it was February 4th and we were having our first board meeting of the year for The Good Samaritan Health Center. Before the official business began a few of us were chatting casually about the coronavirus. The first case in the United States had been confirmed less than two weeks prior. One mother in the room who had a child at home with a fever and dry cough nervously asked one of the doctors if she should worry about COVID-19. He said absolutely not, and we all agreed it was not something anyone should worry much about. We transitioned to the important agenda items and COVID-19 faded into the background.

Less than a month later, on March 3rd, I was reading articles about how the threat of COVID-19 was impacting the world of dentistry, and how we might need to adapt our protocols. We made some early changes, which seemed super conservative at the time, but in hindsight I am so glad we acted quickly. As Dr. Fauci has commented, “If it looks like you’re overreacting, you’re probably doing the right thing.”

Not long afterward on March 12th it was announced that Atlanta Public Schools, City Schools of Decatur, DeKalb County, Cobb County and Marietta City School districts were closed as of the following Monday. I had finished a long day at the clinic and was heading home, already drafting an all-staff email in my head in anticipation of childcare concerns that were now on everyone’s mind, including my own.

The weeks that followed came fast and furious. There was no gradual lead up or warning. One night I went to bed as normal, and the next morning I woke up in crisis leadership mode. It felt like everything changed overnight. All the things had to be attended to: we had to analyze data and make big decisions in the face of uncertainty. We had to establish new protocols and completely rework our care delivery model. We had to coordinate personalized plans for each staff member based on how their own world was changing. There were endless emails, new policies, website overhauls, grant applications, and tracking the news cycle morning to night. I’m proud of how my team and my organization responded. Never have I been so honored to work for Good Sam.

But the truth is that whether you are leading or following in this COVID-19 crisis, it takes a serious toll on you. My life before COVID-19 was crazy busy, there was no “adding a global pandemic” on top of that without some major changes. In case they help anyone else who is reeling from the suddenness of an unprecedented new normal, I will share how I am walking through this storm.

1) I stopped drinking.

Some people may stop reading right there- and if you did I would totally understand. I love drinking, and in normal times I drink in moderation and it is a ritual of celebration. However, as my stress and worry related to COVID-19 increased, I found myself drinking to calm down and drinking too much. The night I almost finished a bottle of Prosecco on my own was it. I was reminded of the scripture in 1 Peter 5:8 to “be sober and alert” and that sometimes life calls for sobering up. Right now I need my mood, sleep, and energy to be all they can be. Further, as long as the number of cases and deaths keep rising in Georgia, most rapidly in the county where I live and my clinic is located, I don’t feel much for celebrating. For right now, drinking will have to wait.

2) I started taking better care of my health.

I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with my staff about taking proactive care of their health. We created “self care” gift bags filled with symbolic items representing the importance of sleep, building your immune system, eating healthy, taking breaks, washing hands, exercising, staying centered, and finding time for moments of joy and gratitude. I realized I needed to model this myself. Perhaps more than any other season in my time as a leader, I’m paying attention to my health. It turns out, all of these basic matters of self doctoring are protective against illness. Another happy and unexpected byproduct is that I’ve been more focused and productive in my work. It’s a lesson I learn over and over again, but taking care of myself helps me take care of others more effectively.

3) I took a break from business school.

It didn’t take long into the new reality of having two full-time working parents at home with two young children that needed to be home-schooled to realize something had to give. I had to look myself in the mirror and admit that I couldn’t do it all. If I tried, something or someone important was bound to suffer. I had long ago made a list of my life priorities which ranked family and work above business school. While I was loving my program and learning a great deal (much of my coursework I am applying right now!) I asked my professors and teammates if I could step back. Turns out, they have been awesome about it and one of my professors even made a donation to my clinic. With the time freed up from this decision I’m able to focus every day on answering the question, “What else can I do today to help Good Sam be as effective as we can be for patients and our surrounding community during the COVID-19 pandemic?” It’s still a 7-day a week job, but I’m singularly focused.

4) I look around my life and declare what’s right.

It doesn’t take much effort in today’s world to hear devastating stories. Watching the news constantly and checking the Georgia Department of Public Health COVID-19 case count will quickly build a narrative about all that is wrong in the world- not to mention other emerging issues the COVID-19 pandemic is causing like job loss, increased incidences of domestic violence, food insecurity, the list goes on and on.

So you know what? I’m taking time every day to look around and if I see anything that’s right I declare it. There is a gorgeous yellow iris blooming in my front yard. It’s stunning. My children are spending more time together and bonding like I’ve never seen. My clinic was awarded a huge grant to help us weather this storm financially. My family has food on the table and a roof over our heads. I need to remember what’s right to balance out what’s wrong so that I will have hope to keep going. I must remember that this world is beautiful and good and thus it’s worth doing all we can to help people live longer and happier lives.

5) I seek the silver lining.

I’m not being Pollyanna here. I know this situation is scary. I lie awake every night and my heart pounds. I grieve those who have been lost. The other day, I cried long and hard. My neck and back have been aching so badly that even muscle relaxers don’t touch it. My heart, my muscles… everything aches for the world right now. There is nothing easy or good about COVID-19 and I pray it goes away as fast as possible.

Yet, what I can control right now is how I respond. Like the God I serve, I can seek to turn things for good. In these trying times, I’ve seen nonprofits work together better than ever before. We’re sharing supplies, resources, and working as a giant team. It’s amazing. I’ve seen a door open to enroll more of our patients in free tele-health services because the felt need is so present. People are talking about isolation as a byproduct of social distancing which is normalizing mental health discussions. Modern day superheros are all around us- except they don’t wear capes. They wear N95 masks and they are so brave. I have never felt such love for my clinical colleagues as I do right now. They are true servants and I feel unworthy to even work with them.

Tonight at dinner I was reflecting to my husband Eric that I don’t know how we come out of this crisis and recover to normal. How does everything that’s been halted ever restart? What does life look like on the other side of the coronavirus? Is normal gone forever?

I don’t know. Honestly, I can only think in half day increments right now. I always thought leadership would look like certainty, having a long-range plan, and forging ahead. But in practice it’s looking a lot more like just doing the next right thing.

And perhaps that is the key. All of us, everywhere, doing the next right thing. Maybe that’s how we flatten the curve and bring down COVID-19. I sure hope so. I’m banking on it.

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