Equanimity Under Duress

Equanimity Under Duress

By Jill Vitiello

Have you ever reached a point in your career when you felt like giving up? Imagine being a young and black female medical student in the 1970s. You’ve survived being one of three black undergraduates in an entire class at a prestigious university. You graduated a year early and got accepted into medical school. And just as you’re beginning to realize your lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, your small but sturdy support system suddenly collapses. Your mom unexpectedly dies of a stroke and your boyfriend is diagnosed with cancer. In spite of all you’ve achieved, and all it took to get here, you just can’t go on.

Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall recalled this moment in her own personal story before a rapt audience at the annual Communications Leadership Exchange conference last week.

She remembered crossing the campus of Howard University, holding a letter that stated her intention to withdraw from medical school. On her way, she bumped into Dr. LaSalle Leffall, her professor, who asked where she was going. When he heard her response, “he literally took me by the arm and turned me around,” said Lewis-Hall, convincing her to rise above the hurt she was feeling and return to her studies.

“Equanimity under duress,” said Lewis-Hall. That was the great life lesson Leffall taught the young medical student who went on to become the Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer and one of the most renowned and recognized physicians of our time. She credits his teaching as the basis of her ability to make decisions in tough circumstances.

Leffall drew his philosophy from the writings of physician Sir William Osler, the Chair of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia from 1884–1889. When Osler left the University of Pennsylvania to become the first Physician-in-Chief at the new Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he delivered a farewell address to his colleagues that included the phrase “equanimity under duress.”

John Santoro leads a lively Q&A with Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall at the 2016 annual CLE conference, held Oct. 20-21, at Pfizer’s headquarters.

The quote inspired Leffall to instill this essential ingredient of success–“the importance of calmness and tranquility in confronting our daily problems”–in the thousands of medical students he trained during his career.

Lewis-Hall is articulate, accomplished, and spunky–all qualities that make her a brilliant spokesperson for the world’s largest research-based pharmaceutical company. She oversees Pfizer’s medical division, which is responsible for the safe, effective, and appropriate use of Pfizer medicines and vaccines around the world. She has a knack for transforming complicated medical information into compassionate messages of hope and healing. Lewis-Hall said she learned how to “translate” the complex to the simple early in life, as she talked with her dad, who had only a third-grade education, about her classes in college.

Looking back, Lewis-Hall recognizes the encounter with her professor as a critical turning point in her life—he was someone who saw the promise through the pain and gently encouraged a shaken young woman to endure a temporary struggle on the journey to becoming her best.

Has anyone you’ve ever known reached a point in their career where they felt like giving up? How have you helped them to demonstrate equanimity under duress?

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