by Tom Robertson
Executive Director, Vizient Research Institute

In summers not interrupted by a global pandemic, I enjoy boating on Lake Michigan. The route from our marina to the lake takes us past an old railroad bridge at the inland end of a deep-water shipping channel, past an iconic red and white lighthouse at the mouth of the St. Joseph River, and into open water. The passage is always a bit rough in the shipping channel, with boat wakes bouncing off the side walls, amplifying their peaks and troughs. As we pass the lighthouse, without fail, my grandkids all give a thumbs-up signal and wave enthusiastically to the old man who they never see in the window. There hasn’t been anyone manning the lighthouse since the 1940s but the kids don’t need to know that until they get older. For now, their grins and upturned thumbs are precious reminders of the power of believing. 

One evening as the sun was setting behind us we caught a rogue wave at the mouth of the channel on our way back in. The water at the spot where the river meets the lake is always confused. Prevailing lake winds are constantly shifting and strong river currents collide headlong with on-shore waves. But it wasn’t a natural wave that tossed us all about. It was a boat wake from a daredevil who cut across my bow at breakneck speed. Experienced boaters recognize the term “green water.” When large waves throw deep water onto a ship’s deck, the green hue sends shivers up sailors’ spines. Shallow water is clear and drains through the scuppers quickly. Green water is deep and deep water is heavy. 

As I turned into the prevailing wind to quarter the oncoming pattern of waves, the wake thrown by the other boat came crashing over our bow with an ominous green curl. The wave hit my grandsons about waist high. There was no time for them to duck. They each held onto the bow ropes like two weathered pirates; they never budged as the wave broke over them. As soon as the water rushed past their feet, they broke into laughter. A moment later, as we eased past the lighthouse, the boys raised their arms together, thumbs up and waving, signaling to no one in the darkened window that all was well. 

The challenges facing health care professionals in the midst of the crisis are not unlike waves crashing across the deck of a boat. You keep the bow facing into the wind and you steer carefully, taking the prevailing waves at a 45-degree angle, deflecting the impact of each swell just enough to allow you to get ready for the next one. As prepared as you are, however, there is always a rogue wave … something unforeseen coming at you out of nowhere. You tighten your grip and hang on, shifting your weight to maintain your balance, grimly determined to remain standing until things return to normal. There is an old sailing term for the cumulative knowledge that comes from having weathered many a storm, and for the resulting savvy that equips you to handle virtually anything thrown at you. It’s called “time on the water.”

There is no question that the heroic efforts of front-line health care providers in the face of this crisis will leave them with the experience and savvy to handle whatever comes in the future. Perhaps even more valuable, they will have ideas as to what changes we should make, ideas about which aspects of health care delivery we should not allow to return to “normal.” Each rogue wave exposes things that we have always done one way that we might do differently in the future. If we are deliberate about the path we take out of the shutdown, we can land in a place even better than before. Maybe even give a wave to the lighthouse as we go by. 

The other day, I was struck by the power of another wave. I was walking alone, maintaining my social distance, getting just enough exercise to keep my blood moving, when I passed a solitary bicyclist heading in the opposite direction. We each hugged our respective sides of the street, leaving as much distance between us as possible. As we passed, we made eye contact and waved. I’ve passed countless people in my life, and given countless cursory nods or brief waves, but this felt different. We each knew what the other was going through. We each felt an odd combination of empathy and respect. We made a connection, however brief, that we would not have made before this crisis. 

It’s impossible to say how we’ll all feel when we come through this test. Impossible to predict what will go back to normal and what, well, won’t. We can be sure we’ll be changed by the experience, but in the middle of it all, I found hope that maybe – just maybe – some good will come of it. Perhaps we'll be less likely to pass one another without noticing. Or to waste our time on pettiness when we have so much important work to do. If we’re lucky, coming out of this crisis we’ll be more inclined to think of what each other is going through. To take that moment of time to make eye contact. To connect. 

It was just a wave. Or was it?

About the author and the Vizient Research Institute. As executive director of the Vizient Research Institute, Tom Robertson and his team have conducted strategic research on clinical enterprise challenges for 20 years. The groundbreaking work at the Vizient Research Institute drives exceptional member value using a systematic, integrated approach. The investigations quickly uncover practical, tested results that lead to measurable improvement in clinical and economic performance.