Somehow people knew he was about to enter the room. The thirty or so people in the room were seated, though people began to stand up.
“Are we supposed to stand up for the Surgeon General?” I asked the person sitting next to me.
She shrugged. If we remained seated, everyone would have noticed. So we stood up.
“I’ve been in this position for a year and a half,” Dr. Murthy said, “and I’m still not used to people standing up for me. Please sit down.”[1. I learned later that the Surgeon General has the rank of a Vice Admiral, as the role oversees uniformed health officers. That’s why people stand up for the Surgeon General.]
We were all in that room for about an hour, but Dr. Murthy said little. After some opening remarks about the Turn the Tide initiative related to the opioid epidemic, he asked the audience to tell him what was going well and what could use improvement.
I had never met him before, but I was immediately struck with his listening skills. It was as if he was taking a history from a multi-person patient. He made and held eye contact. He didn’t fidget. He spoke in a quiet yet firm voice. Though he didn’t come across as warm, it was clear that he was interested in and paying attention to whoever was talking to him. His thoughtful follow-up questions indicated that he was listening to what people were saying to him.
He seemed like a good doctor.
As I had never met a federal official before, I later learned that Dr. Murthy was also unusual in that he took notes. (Fun fact: He’s left handed.)
“These are usually publicity events without a lot of substance,” a more seasoned co-worker commented.
By the time the meeting was over, he had covered a sheet from a yellow notepad with copious notes. He expressed what seemed like genuine thanks to us for our time and perspectives.
It was through luck only that I was there. A colleague told me a few days prior that the Surgeon General was scheduled to speak to a local task force related to the opioid epidemic.
“The Surgeon General?” I blurted. “I’d love to hear what he has to say.”
“Then you should come.”
Afterwards, as the Surgeon General’s staff were trying to hustle him out the door, the same colleague who invited me to this event gave me A Look. Only I could see the thought bubble above his head: “Go ask him for a photo!”
Though I appreciated Dr. Murthy’s humility, thoughtfulness, and professionalism, I was also grateful and amused with his willingness to stop for a photo.
Earlier that day I was seeing patients.
“Do you know how much longer you’re going to be jail?” I asked.
“Ten or eleven days.” He looked at my left hand. “You’re married?”
“I should start going to NA meetings again. I’m never gonna meet a woman in here and I get so depressed about not having a family. I want a wife and kids, like my brother. I don’t know why he got so lucky and I got screwed. The TV doesn’t talk to him, he’s got a wife and three kids, God blesses him, but I will wait because the meek shall inherit the earth—”
“What do you think will help you not pick up when you get out?”
He shrugged. “I still don’t have a place to live. Dope helps me feel better.”
We looked at each other and said nothing.
The reality is that the Surgeon General (or any other public official) is just one person. Though he has a grand title, he alone cannot make improve health care. He is part of a system. We can only hope that he and his office will be able to shift the system—even if only just a bit—so that it works better to serve the US population.
What the Surgeon General can do and, at least for me, has done, is inspire physicians to get involved and do better. He could have swept into the meeting and spoke at length about his accomplishments and his status within the federal government. He instead presented himself as a humble ambassador and servant. He demonstrated interest in what our locality has witnessed and experienced. He recognized that, even though he was an academic physician, he is now too far removed from clinical care to speak first as an expert. He solicited and accepted feedback, some of which was discouraging. He was professional. He wasn’t defensive. He acknowledged that it may seem like our feedback would disappear into a void in Washington, DC, though everything else he was actually doing during the meeting gave us hope otherwise. It’s quiet leadership.
There are a lot of problems with health care. Physicians and patients both know this. Physicians are trained to take care of people, not to create and manage financial systems that should only support the relationships between physicians and people. However, if physicians are not involved in the conversations about these systems, then we are not advocating for the patients we serve and the profession that gives us the privilege of doing so. Yes, I know we’re too busy taking care of patients to participate in these conversations that can seem bloated and irrelevant. However, if we don’t get involved to define the problems and solutions, how could we ever expect these systems to improve?