Experiencing Leadership Through Illness

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Throughout my early childhood I suffered from chronic respiratory illnesses. The ability to breathe without pushing heavily against my lungs or the absence of a wheeze, those were rare and short lived moments. As I nursed my own daughter this past week through a nasty bout of Strep throat, and then my own infection caught from her, I nostalgically recalled family stories of that period of my life and was struck with how deeply those experiences have shaped my leadership style.

Servant Leadership:

While I was clearly the constant patient, illness wasn’t just my nemesis. Every family story from my childhood is punctuated with “and that was the time Daisita was sick with…”. Even my teenage aunt’s suitors fell prey to my health woes, as is often recounted in the “Valentine’s story”. On this particular Valentine’s Day, I was battling yet another respiratory infection. That evening, several suitors (emphasis on several) came to our home to “ofrecer un angelito/present a Valentine’s gift” for my aunt. With each visit, my grandfather would sullenly greet them at the door, quickly take whatever they brought for my aunt and slam it shut behind them as quickly as possible to reduce any incoming wind — an enemy to me. As the story goes, the last suitor faced quite a scare when my grandfather opened the door thunderously yelling that he had a sick child at home and that if anyone dared come back, he would shoot them with his rifle. Unsurprisingly, no other suitors visited that evening. Everyone in my home, even my unwitting aunt, placed my needs above theirs that evening, and countless others throughout my life. As the beneficiary of such generosity and deep care, facilitating the success (or health) of others feels not like a duty but a welcomed responsibility.

Innovation:

My grandmother, a highly practical woman raised with very little, deftly ensured I received the best medical care at every turn. I had a tonsillectomy when I was about three to reduce the risk of recurring sore throats and congestion. Home remedies, common in the Spanish Caribbean community that raised me, were found aplenty in our home — home brewed teas in particular. And I’ll say it once but let’s not speak of it again — Vicks Vapor Rub or “Vivaporu” as I called it. I smelled like it for most of my childhood. The treatment that is most vivid in my memory took place when I was about four or five — “the year of the shots”. To cure a persistent pneumonia, I was given a weekly steroid shot for a period of several months. For a child well familiar with medical treatments, I was a terrible patient who dreaded any type of injection. As the story goes, I would cry and yell all the way to the doctor’s office, while the injection was applied, and all the way back home. Except on the last day. That day, with prodding from no one, I bravely offered one of my little butt cheeks (the one not punctured on the previous visit) and said, “ok”, as I turned away, eyes shut. My grandmother’s openness to experimenting with medicinal options was my early primer of creativity in pursuit of transformative solutions.

Strategically and collaboratively managing resources:

My pediatrician also happened to be my great-granduncle — my grandmother’s maternal uncle. I spent more time being treated by Tio Juancito in his back porch than in his office. I’m confident that we did not pay for every diagnosis or treatment. And that he did not treat other patients with a beer by his side. Just as I’m confident that my grandmother would strategically pay either in cash or in-kind services to make it all work out, as she would throughout my life.

Decisiveness:

Tio Juancito was a man of science who taught me the power of exercising my own agency. One evening, as he sat on his reclining chair he quickly diagnosed me when he saw my under-eye dark circles and cough-beaten demeanor. His medical recommendation: “Well, as I see it you have two choices. If you want to heal right away, I can give you a shot (of antibiotics). But if you don’t mind feeling sick for a little longer, I can prescribe pills. It’s your choice.” He delivered this prognosis in his usual matter of fact style but I could swear he was also giving me a sly smile. With no hesitation, and avoiding my grandmother’s gaze of what was surely irritated disbelief, I responded, “pills, please”. In the midst of rapidly changing circumstances, I made an executive decision. And I never regretted it.

Learning Agility:

The story I have shared less over the years is the one that has quietly haunted me the most. I once overhead a well intended yet inappropriate family friend say that I would not live past the age of forty. To this day I can’t recall in what context or who it was. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be listening in — a cardinal rule in our household. At the time, or so I thought, I didn’t think much of that forecast. Forty seemed so old and distant.

True to the youthful innocence of ones teens and twenties, while it remained a distant marker in the back of my mind, I wasn’t worried about this pending date. Throughout my 30s, as the prophetic date loomed, I laughed it off yet approached my life with a bit more mature wisdom and focus on my health. I did everything I could to strengthen my lung capacity and keep my heart healthy (I was born with a mitral valve prolapse) — running, gym classes, biking, healthy eating, etc. I even trained for and ran the NYC marathon with my supportive husband by my side… and the only thing that gave out were my knees — not my heart, not my lungs.

Now in my mid-forties (my grandmother and aunts will gasp when they read that I’ve put my age in writing), well past that dreaded mark, I’ve learned to accept the uncertainty in life with grace and humor, most of the time. While no longer suffering from chronic illness, I hold a deep respect and create space for those who do. I have inadvertently applied learnings along the way about caring for others, openness to experiment, finding one’s voice, discipline and resourcefulness that have come in handy personally and professionally. No matter what ailments may come my way, I can confidently draw from a rich reservoir of tools and resources, along with an army of loving family and friends, to push forward. Strep throat beware!