PMP:170 Four Lessons in Teamwork from my Son’s Hospital Stay

Six years ago, on October 31, 2013, my son Jack was eight years old.

Photo by Will Montague – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License

We had just finished an amazing day of trick-or-treating, and he asked if he could change back into his normal clothes. This was a big deal because he had been wearing a hosptial gown for almost ten days. On this Halloween, we did not go door-to-door as we normally did each year. In 2013, Jack was dressed up in his Star Wars Jedi costume and enjoyed trick-or-treating in a wheelchair as we pushed him through the St. Francis Children’s Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

When bad things happen, it is sometimes hard to see the good in our difficulties. My son’s battle and recovery from an infectious disease known as Kawasaki, was one of those times. In addition to the amazing support of our friends, church and community, during those days, I was also astounded at the phenomenal care he received from his nurses, techs, doctors, and interns that literally saved his life.

Each year at Halloween, I think back to that time with gratitude. The medical team who cared for him was an excellent example of teamwork. In fact, I’ve often thought how their actions apply to the work we do in school — or anyone interested in developing a team, organization or even as family.

I’ve shared about Jack’s story in a previous podcast episode. But in honor of this special anniversary, I wanted to reflect on the our experience with my son’s medical team again and share four takeaways that may help you in your own service to others:

1. A common goal unites a group of diverse people.

To give you some context, when our son was first admitted, he was in terrible shape: high fever, rash, swelling, etc. When they diagnosed him with Kawasaki and began treatments, his condition worsened.

Then he went into shock.

His treatments had to stop while they stabilized him for the next twenty four hours. Then they began treatments again, and this time the symptoms began to disappear and he began to heal.

It was obvious during the entire time that his medical team had one goal in mind: to save our son.

No matter their backgrounds, gender, differences in job titles or compensation, each team member was focused on that one outcome. Every decision was weighed against its effect on him, his condition, and well-being.

In Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great, he studies the most effective businesses in America–ones with the longest track record of success. And one of many contributing factors was the ability of great companies to focus on a specific area where they can be most effective and work toward that goal.

Lesson learned? When we focus on a common goal, not allowing ourselves to be distracted by secondary ones, we are more strategic and effective. What is the common goal you are working toward with your team? A common goal can unify the most diverse of people into positive action.

2. Great team members know their roles and execute them well.

Whether it was the nurse tech assigned to check my son’s vitals, his RN who was determined to bring his fever under control, his physicians prescribing treatments or the pharmacists or lab techs we never met but who were prescribing or analyzing–each one played a pivotal role in his healing.

And each one performed the role assigned. The nurse did not attempt diagnose. That was the doctor’s role. The tech did not administer meds. That was the nurse’s role. Instead, each person performed the role he or she had been assigned.

At an athletic event, you sometimes see a team playing “in the zone”. Everything seems to flow effortlessly. But in reality you are observing the skills of individuals who understand their roles and have played them long enough, practiced enough, and been together enough to make a complicated event look like play.

The result is something beautiful to observe.

Lesson learned? Fulfilling specific roles means each team member understands his or her key responsibility areas. When each of us performs our specific role on a team, the effect and outcome can often be breath-taking.

3. Caring for people and reaching outcomes must go hand in hand.

Not only did his medical team accomplish the goal of curing our son, but also they truly cared for him.

Whether it was regulating his meds, whispering soothing words, or finding creative ways to relieve fever, they were consistently showing the sincerest care for him.

Most educators are familiar with the research done by the Gates Foundation on the three R’s that are present in all great schools: rigor, relevance, and relationship.

In school, an educator may be an expert in curriculum and instruction. But the intangible element of caring for and loving students always separates a good “instructor” from a great “teacher”.

Lesson learned? When trust and care are present, not only is a goal accomplished but a meaningful relationship is established at the same time. And usually more learning, productivity and positive outcomes occur in the process.

4. Great teams remain teach-able.

Another of the reason I think my son’s medical team was so effective was that he was in a teaching hospital. Resident doctors interning there were being asked to participate and lead in decision making. At the same time, the older doctors were mentoring, coaching, and teaching them.

It was an atmosphere of mutual respect where continuous learning, research, and practice were valued.

Not only do you flourish when you work in a culture of learning but also those whom you are serving will flourish too.

Lesson learned? When people value the importance of constantly learning from one another, relying on research-based methodology, and growing through experienced practice, then you have created a culture of learning and growth.

Great things happen in places where people are flexible, open, and teachable.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Today Jack is healthy, happy 14-year old. It wasn’t only his medical team who contributed to his care so many years ago. Our school friends, church friends, and family were also amazing. In fact, on Halloween morning in 2013, a local pastor in Tulsa placed this post on his Facebook page: “Hey, friends. There is a little boy in room 123 at St. Francis Hospital who needs to enjoy a great Halloween. Don’t let him down!” Before we knew what was happening, visitors (many of them complete strangers) began stopping by the room with candy, treats and games.

By that afternoon, every surface, counter and windowsill was overflowing with gifts.

Great commmunities work for common goals, execute individual roles, care for others, and remain teach-able. In my son’s case, the actions of a great community quite literally saved his life. Think about what we can accomplish in our lives, schools or organizations when we do the same.

Now It’s Your Turn

What are some other examples of great teamwork you have observed? What would you add to the list of qualities it takes to build a great team? What are some resources on team-work that you recommend?

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker