When Confidence Was Replaced With Anxiety At MD Anderson: Getting the Confidence Back

By

Leonard Zwelling

In this particularly germane opinion piece in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, April 23, Nitsuh Abebe describes our age of anxiety. The term actually dates back to W. H. Auden and a poem of that name from 1947, but it has lately come to characterize the overall mindset of the United States.

It seems like anxiety has been with me my whole life.

I was young during the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis scared the heck out of America as it seemed the fictional descriptions in books like Alas, Babylon might come true.

This was followed by the Kennedy assassination, additional killings of major political figures, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Iran Contra, Monica, America’s longest wars in the Middle East, more racial disquiet under a black president than previously under the last few white ones, and now Donald Trump. Trump’s very election has been attributed to “economic anxiety” among the working class.

Over the past fifteen years or so, MD Anderson has transitioned from the most confident of academic institutions, sure of its mission and the quality of its clinical care, to another symbol of ethical and economic anxiety as well.

When the turmoil of academic leaders being involved with Wall Street arrived at 1515 in 2001 and 2002, and the ethics of those leading the institution came into question, this gave rise to doubt that had not been there before.

Was MD Anderson really about superlative clinical care or did the number of grants and papers trump the delivery of exemplary cancer care?

Was the traditional plan of making the most of the revenue from patient care and living within the means of that revenue stream to be tossed aside for profligate spending, more buildings, thousands more employees, and the promise of revenue streams from the commercialization of academic discoveries, some made with public money? I think that is exactly what occurred and the leadership of Anderson led the charge and the faculty, paralyzed by “academic anxiety,” allowed it to transpire.

In the article, Abebe says this at the end:

“the only thing that could relieve our national anxieties is something bad happening to us—something so clarifyingly awful that we’re forced to become solemn and still and agree about it.”

I think that 9/11 did that for a while. Then President Bush opened a two front war in Afghanistan and Iraq that persists to this day. Anxiety returned.

Mr. Obama never was able to get beyond the anxiety in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown and his own inability to come to grips with just about anything after the ACA passed using legislative tricks. Talk about causing anxiety!

MD Anderson may well have a leg up on the country in this regard because the bad thing Abebe says is needed to snap a group out of its collective anxiety has already happened at Anderson. That would be Ron DePinho. While causing immense anxiety with his random firing of truly great leaders, faculty and non, and the installation of equally lackluster ones plus the whole tenor of ethical compromise that characterized the DePinho tenure, MD Anderson has already suffered its car crash.

Now can Anderson ever get the confidence back that was so much a part of Anderson when I arrived in 1984 and remained in place until the early 21st century?

Only time will tell, but Anderson needs to suffer no more trauma to get the attention of all those laboring under a constant cloud of anxiety. It’s time to throw off the cloud, find a new president, and get back to confidence as the dominant affect of MD Anderson faculty and employees. Don’t you agree?

I am confident that you do.

Leonard Zwelling