Star Stuff                                    April
9, 2013,

            By
Leonard Zwelling

            Neil
DeGrasse Tyson is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and a
prominent astrophysicist. He was being interviewed on the Bob Edwards radio
program on Tuesday, April 9. Toward the end of the hour, he was asked by Bob
what fact about the universe was most wondrous to him. After a pause he
described how the heat and energy of the stars had formed the many elements in
the periodic table and how those elements came to constitute the atoms in our
own bodies.

            “So
when I look up at the stars, I don’t feel small because the universe is so big.
I feel big because I came from there and that makes me feel relevant. Everyone
wants to feel relevant”.

            Could
that be said any better when commenting about our place in the universe or our
places in the organizations in which we work? I think not.

            When
someone stops at his or her job and feels that the work he or she is doing is
not noticed, not appreciated or not germane to the institution employing him or
her, that person feels small and disconnected from the organization. He or she
no longer has a stake in the organization’s success. The person no longer feels
relevant. What was once an integral part of the person’s life was now simply a
job.

            If
there was one thing that distinguished the MD Anderson I came to in 1984 from
most other institutions where I had worked, especially the NCI, it was that I
felt that I mattered at Anderson. My colleagues made me feel that way. My boss
made me feel that way. The President Dr. LeMaistre made me feel that way. And
soon enough, I felt that way myself because I saw myself as an important part
of MD Anderson and I saw MD Anderson as an important part of who I was
professionally AND personally. MD Anderson was in my DNA and in my atoms.

            Today,
MD Anderson is much larger than it was in 1984. It is physically spread across
miles of land. It can be months between the times I see people who I used to
bump into every day. The lunches at the Anderson Mayfair and the Faculty Dining
Room that used to be important venues for discussing new research questions and
difficult cases have disappeared and not been replaced. Besides, the faculty
has no time for lunch anyway.

            There
is no annual celebration of faculty retirements and awards as there used to
be.  The annual convocation has
substituted pseudoacademic eclecticism for the real community of a cancer
center with a singular focus. But more than anything else, the communal
investment each of us had in the institution has been shattered by unplanned,
uncontrolled and mindless growth in which none of us had had any input combined
with the sense that the leadership is in it for themselves not for the whole. I
trace this to 2001, but others may have different views. Denying the change is
not a possible view, however.

            I
have heard that the leadership has acknowledged that it has been bloodied in
the press. It has and for good reasons.

            I
have heard rumors that a crisis management consultant has been retained. Good
idea. Crisis management is needed given all that we have heard about the need
for greater clinical revenues at a time when the hospital is often 100%
occupied.

            What
I have not heard is any contrition on the part of the leadership with regard to
why that bloodying and crisis took place or an apology for the bad behavior
that caused the criticism in the first place. In other words, it still seems
like the leadership is in it for themselves not for us, for the patients, or
for the institution.

            Personally,
I am not sure the leadership can expect to recapture the rapture of MD Anderson
past without first confessing to their own errors and then providing a path
toward reconnecting the faculty and staff with the star stuff we were made
from. Those elements are embodied in our core values of discovery, caring and
integrity and some of these have been seriously strained of late.

            To
regain what made MD Anderson special, we might consider focusing on that star
material, patients and research, not “clinical productivity” and financial
performance”, rather than shooting at a dead rock 250,000 miles away.

            We
landed on the Moon and frolicked in the mud at Woodstock in 1969. Both events
proved to be ends not beginnings as the summer of love (1967) was long over and
the moon shots vanished shortly thereafter. Both music and the Space Program
have been going around in circles since. We need a new direction, but we also
need to recapture our youth. It’s all there in the stars if we let ourselves be
the stars again, not as individual supernovas, but as a series of
constellations lighting the night Texas sky.

            “We
are star dust. We are golden. We are caught in the Devil’s bargain and we got
to get ourselves back to the garden.”—Joni Mitchell, Woodstock

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