My Daughter’s Emergency Brain Surgery: 3 Leadership Lessons Learned

My youngest daughter Tiffany was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 1. Now 27, she has endured seven brain surgeries, intractable epilepsy (non-responsive to drug therapy), proton beam radiation, and an experimental device implanted into her brain. The implant, just approved by the FDA and called a responsive neuro-stimulator holds great promise for epileptic patients that don’t respond to drugs. Two months ago we drove to Rush University Medical Center in Chicago to have her battery replaced. A week ago we noticed a tiny hole in her scalp at the incision line. I saw metal in that hole, a potential sign that the device was now exposed. The day we reported this to her neurosurgeon, he requested an emergency meeting with him ASAP. The next day we drove to Chicago unsure about what awaited us. Here’s what happened last week and what I learned about leadership.

Upon arrival, we went straight to the neurology waiting room. We waited perhaps 30 minutes and they apologized for the wait, even though we had scheduled the appointment less than 48 hours prior.

The neurosurgeon’s new nurse greeted us with a smile and great concern. Within 10 minutes Dr. Richard Byrne, Tiffany’s doctor who is chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Rush Hospital saw us. After looking at her scalp, with concern and compassion he said that the device needed to come out. Its exposure probably meant that bacteria had contaminated the device and to protect Tiffany’s brain from further exposure, surgery was needed, the next day. However, he felt that even without the device her seizures may not occur since she had been seizure free since her temporal lobectomy four years prior.

We were saddened that it had to come out, but agreed.

The surgery the next day, her seventh brain surgery, went well and as of this writing, she is recovering nicely. We pray that her brain will take care of itself and that she will continue to be seizure free.

During our stay at Rush through this surprise surgery, I experienced three key leadership principles at play that I believe every pastor or leader should ask about his or her church or organization.

Leadership Principle 1: Great churches and organizations respond quickly and promptly to needs.

  •  The day we noticed the hole, the nurse on the other end spoke with us by phone twice that afternoon. And even though Dr. Byrne was out of the office in another state, she contacted him and emailed him pictures I had taken of Tiffany’s head. Tiffany’s neurologist, Dr. Marvin Rossi, who has followed Tiffany for 10 years also contacted us. Our doctors were quick and responsive to our need, exceeding my expectations.
  • Leadership question: How would those in need rank your church or organization for promptness to their needs?

Leadership Principle 2: Great churches and organizations help increase certainty in their culture by over communicating.

  • A key principle of the brain is that it likes certainty. Uncertainty, however, engages the brain’s limbic system (fight-flight area) which creates a threat response which in turn hinders clear thinking. In other words, uncertainty breeds worry. You can imagine how easy it was for our thoughts to drift toward a worst case scenario. While we waited in one waiting room, a nurse rolled around a computer on a stand and asked if we’d like an update on Tiffany. We gladly said yes. In the next five minutes she gave us detailed information that included the time she went into surgery, when the surgery was over, her blood pressure, her heart rate, her oxygen uptake, her self assessed pain level, and when we could see her in recovery. The five minutes the nurse gave us to over communicate about Tiffany’s condition greatly relieved our concerns.
  • Leadership question: Do you keep your church/organization in the dark about what’s happening or do you intentionally over communicate?

Leadership Principle 3: Great churches and organizations intentionally create a positive, hopeful, and happy atmosphere.

  • Having spent several weeks at Rush during the past 10 years, I’ve noticed a growing, infectious, positive culture. The admitting personnel, the nurses, the doctors, and even many of the cafeteria workers communicate a positive tone with their smile, their words, and even their body language. The concept of emotional contagion comes into play here. Emotional contagion is what the phrase sounds like: we catch the emotions of those around us, whether good or bad. We unconsciously mimic the emotions of others, an example of the principle in Proverbs 15.1. A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. I once noticed a supervisor exude friendliness to every employee he met and I told him that I experienced this same positive vibe from others. He said that they intentional sought to create such a culture.
  • Leadership Question: Do you intentionally seek to model for those in your church/organization a positive and hopeful attitude?

Rush is repeatedly ranked among the country’s top hospitals in US News & World Reports’s annual hospital survey. I can see why. Their culture reflects three key leadership principles that pastors and Christian leaders should seek to build into their churches and organizations.

What leadership principle would you add to this list?

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