On Good Friday this year, I found myself in an operating room with my arms literally stretched out like Jesus on the cross as ten medical professionals prepared me for surgery. To my surprise, as a mask was placed over my nose and mouth to administer general anesthesia, I felt grateful rather than scared.
A few days earlier, while my wife, Katie, and I were visiting our daughter Elizabeth in Madrid, Spain, I had fallen down a few stairs at a restaurant, fracturing my left ankle and rupturing the tendon that connects my right knee cap to the quadricep muscles in my thigh. I did not know the extent of my injuries at the time but I knew I could not get up on either leg. An ambulance was called and EMTs strapped me into a special wheelchair to pull me back up to the ground floor before transporting me to a public hospital. After examining the X-rays, the doctors put split casts on both of my legs and recommended that I have surgery as soon as possible. I decided to fly back to the U.S. for surgery for a number of reasons, including the language barrier.
We Couldn’t Do It Alone: How Supportive Relationships Helped Us Through
From my years immersed in studying the benefits of human connection to individuals and groups, I was also keenly aware that being home and in the midst of our support network of family and friends would impact my recovery too. In the 2nd edition of Connection Culture, I wrote, “Although many factors are involved, the human connection that provides emotional support is one factor research has found to be associated with positive patient outcomes. … Regardless of the medical outcome, there’s no denying the comfort and strength connection can provide to those who suffer and to their caregivers.”
The injuries were painful. It was strange to suddenly not be able to walk or bear weight on either leg. We were only a few days into our vacation and we still had activities and side trips we were looking forward to. I wasn’t ready to end our time with our daughter but, thanks to the candor and adamant tone of a friend of mine who is a retired orthopedic surgeon, I realized it was important to have surgery ASAP because complications arise the longer the period between the accident and surgery. It would have been easy to slip into a state of negative emotions.
To stay positive, I kept thinking of all the people who showed us kindness in Madrid, including Elizabeth and her friends, the hotel staff and the United Airlines reservation agent who found a flight for us and seats that would have the room I needed. On our travel day, I thought about the kindness of the staff at Madrid Airport, the flight attendants on the United Airlines flight home, the people at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey and at Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut. I thought about how friends sprang into action. One person picked us up at the airport and drove us the 80 miles to the hospital while two others retrieved our car parked at JFK Airport in New York, bringing it to our home in a different town in Connecticut so Katie wouldn’t have to do that. I knew family and friends were praying for us and Katie had several people helping her think through possible next steps.
My heart was grateful for all the individuals who helped us in such practical ways, but what really caught my attention in those first few days was the surge of positive emotions I experienced and how it helped put me in a positive state of mind going into surgery. What is especially surprising to me is that the positive emotions have been more like joy than mere happiness.
Thank God the surgery on both the left ankle and knee area on my right leg went well. Now I’m quickly recovering thanks to all the physicians, physician assistants, nurses, techs, physical therapists, environmental service workers and meal services staff who took care of me around the clock at the hospital in the initial days post-surgery. Katie and I made a point to befriend them and learn a little about them as individuals as well as regularly express our appreciation. Having been transferred to a rehab facility closer to home, I am grateful for all those who are coming alongside me during this next phase on my journey to recovery and being back on my feet. We’re making new friends here too.
This experience has impressed upon me just how important it is to develop a supportive community, particularly where one lives — to support and serve others when they go through inevitable difficult seasons in life and to let them support and serve you when you face hardships. The emotional uplift from the kindness and support we are receiving is helping me and Katie so that we are doing well through a difficult time.
Supportive Relationships Matter at Work Too
Why share this personal story with you? This dynamic of having supportive relationships is relevant at work too. When teams, units or organizations go through difficult times, do people turn to each other or do they turn on each other?
When people pull together in times of stress and challenge, they are capable of accomplishing great things. One example that comes to mind was captured in one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13. The Apollo 13 spacecraft was hurtling through space on its way to a planned landing on the Moon in April 1970 when a cryogenic oxygen tank exploded and compromised the generation of electrical power, oxygen for breathing and water for drinking. Back on Earth, the NASA “family” pulled together to figure out how to get the three astronauts safely home, which included figuring out how to remove dangerous levels of carbon dioxide that would build up inside the spacecraft. NASA engineers solved the problem by jerry-rigging a device they called “The Mailbox” then guiding the astronauts on how to collect materials onboard and build one. The ordeal ended well when The Mailbox worked and Apollo 13 splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean on April 17, with millions of people around the world watching on television who had pulled for and prayed for the safe return of the men onboard. NASA refers to the mission as a “successful failure.”
We do not know what a day may bring – a triumph or a tragedy, or, in my case, a slip down a few stairs that lands you in the hospital. By intentionally developing collegiality and cultures of connection, we can prepare in advance to respond when challenges arise. Don’t wait for another day or a more convenient time to establish and nurture supportive working relationships with your colleagues and people in your community.
More From Michael Lee Stallard
Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.