She nearly died at her own hospital, and it taught her how to be a better doctor.

"I effectively bled to death in my own hospital," said Dr. Rana Awdish.

Dr. Rana Awdish. Photo from Henry Ford Hospital.

In 2008, Awdish was seven months pregnant and just finishing up her fellowship at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. On her last day, however, something suddenly went deeply wrong inside of her. She began to bleed into her abdomen — fast. Her body effectively crashed out. It took more than 26 units of blood products that night just to keep her alive. She would go through organ failure, respirators, even a stroke.


Ultimately, the hospital was able to save her, but unfortunately, not her baby. Later, they'd discover the cause was an undiagnosed ruptured tumor in her liver. Her recovery would take years and five major operations.

"I had to relearn to walk, speak, and do many other things I had taken for granted," said Awdish. She told her story in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Today, Awdish is back at work, but the experience forced her to confront some uncomfortable truths about her job.

Doctors are trained in how to cure patients, but actually being on the opposite side of that relationship revealed something Awdish had never realized: how inadvertently hurtful even an amazing doctor's words could be. Stuck in a hospital bed, Awdish saw how seemingly normal hospital jabber could hide a mess of tiny, unseen emotional barbs.

"We're going to have to find you a new liver," someone said to her. "Unless you want to live here forever."

“You should hold the baby,” another medical staffer said. “I don’t want to be graphic, but after a few days in the morgue, their skin starts to break down, and you won’t be able to anymore, even if you change your mind.”

But in those words, she also saw her own practice as a doctor.

"I overheard a physician describe me as 'trying to die on us.' I was horrified. I was not trying to die on anyone. The description angered me," said Awdish. "Then I cringed. I had said the same thing, often and thoughtlessly, in my training."

She realized that as a doctor, she had focused on getting people healthy. Just keeping people alive was her measure of success. But actually being sick herself brought up waves of emotion.

"I realized when I sort of kept dying in the hospital is that I had all this existential angst," says Awdish. "Can we talk about how I'm dying? You see it. I know you see it. You just coded it. This feels awkward that we're not discussing it."

But at the same time, Awdish realized she had been blind to her own patients confronting similar feelings. "I remember having patients ask me, when they're diagnosed with cancer, 'But how could this have happened?' And as a doctor, I had taken that as an invitation to give them data," says Awdish. "But that's not what they were asking. It was a request for a connection."

The problem, in the end, was that empathy had taken a backseat to everything else.

When Awdish went back to work, she decided to change her entire outlook of what medicine should be.

"My experience changed me. It changed my vision of what I wanted our organization to be, to embody," she explains.

While she had received years of training in how to fight illness — years of breaking disease into digestible parts, memorizing strategies, practicing care — there hadn't been an equivalent training in how to talk to patients. She had just been more or less expected to pick it up as she went.

Awdish began working with an organization called VitalTalk, which helps train physicians in how to communicate with patients. She and a group of like-minded doctors began recruiting improv actors from around Detroit and Pittsburgh to help them rehearse how to have tough, emotional conversations.

Awdish and her colleagues did this for years as a kind of grassroots movement. Today, Henry Ford Hospital has embraced Awdish's culture of empathy.

Awdish is now part of the hospital system's new Department of Physician Communication and Peer Support. Among other things, medical staff at Henry Ford now get access to a suite of talks, apps, workshops, and courses. They might learn how to recognize anxiety or how to connect with a patient's values before prescribing therapies, says Awdish. There are even shadowing programs, where the doctors can get discreet feedback and coaching.

New hires are also taught that everyone, not just doctors, can help people in the healing process. For this, Awdish can draw examples from her own experience.

"Radiology technicians learn what a kindness it was that they stopped trying to awaken my exhausted husband to move him from my bedside for my portable X-ray — instead throwing a lead cover over him and letting him sleep," said Awdish.

Awdish says even the doctors themselves could be benefiting from the changes. Physicians might have to have multiple, very difficult conversations with patients every day. It takes an emotional toll. By equipping doctors with the tools to better connect and communicate with patients, it's helping them too.

As for whether this is working, a pilot study suggested that patients can see a difference. The hospital is now collecting big picture data and plans on publishing it.

There will always be painful moments, but by putting empathy at the heart of medicine — as Awdish and Henry Ford Hospital did — we could potentially build better health system altogether.

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On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

Staff were instructed to be extra polite to brown-eyed people and to discriminate against blue-eyed people. Her guest for that day's show was diversity expert Jane Elliott, who helped set up the experiment and played along, explaining that brown-eyed people were smarter than blue-eyed people.

Watch the video to see how this experiment plays out.

Oprah's Social Experiment on Her Audience www.youtube.com

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Take Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, for example, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years, and as a teacher for seven. Entering the profession, she didn't anticipate how much influence a student's home life could affect her classroom, including "students who lived in foster homes" and "lacked parental support."

Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

So what resources do teachers turn to in an increasingly fractured world? "Joining a professional learning network that supports and challenges thinking is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can do to support their own learning," Anglemyer says.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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