Learning From Life Moments - The Person Behind the Smile (2020)

Jean Claude Noel

Learning From Life Moments - The Person Behind the Smile

For the past twelve years I have worked with cancer patients as a volunteer at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Ruttenberg Treatment Centre in New York. Through conversations with other patients, as I was myself going through treatment a couple of years earlier, I had been amazed by the importance often placed on the consequences of a cancer diagnosis and treatment on professional life. 


This dimension was often as high on the list of priorities and concerns as the illness itself. While medical as well as to some extent social and psychological aspects were well covered by a competent hospital staff at all levels, no support relating to their professional life was available. Yet, with many patients now diagnosed at an earlier stage, their active life was a concern during but also post treatment. Practical questions were on their mind as well as emotional questions on future identity and focus.


Having recently left corporate life at the time to start a new career in Executive Consulting and Coaching, I thought I might help by providing a ‘safe space’ to facilitate patients’ reflections on how to shape the next stage of their professional life ‘beyond cancer’. I came up with a plan, which gained interest within Mount Sinai Hospital as confirmed by a number of oncology physicians. While these positive reactions stimulated my enthusiasm, reality was also bringing a set of administrative hurdles, such as supervision of proposed ‘mentoring’ support and responsibility. When it became clear that the scope and relative complexity of the project would require significant planning time, I was presented with the opportunity to get involved with the cancer centre at a different level as an interim step.


My ‘mission’ as a volunteer was to define a role within this outpatient centre, where volunteering had never been established due to the sensitive nature of the environment. Following a conversation with the Director of Operations, I was essentially given a free hand at shaping the role.  The message was: “See what you can do”. I started with a combination of ‘small’ things such as welcoming, assisting with paperwork, linking with the staff, providing direction, being available for a conversation, simply listening or giving a coffee and a cookie. It did not feel quite as ambitious as I had initially planned until a new patient I had helped came to me as he was about to leave after his first chemo session with the following comment: “This is such a wonderful place!”. I would have thought of many places justifying that qualification but not a cancer centre. He was in fact conveying how ‘small’ signs of attention made a difference to his experience and contributed to lowering his anxiety. 


At that moment, I understood that ambitious plans were not necessarily leading to greater impact. As long as sincerity, purpose and commitment were present, impact would be defined in qualitative and not quantitative terms. I was reminded of this reality when recently interacting with a patient just before the Holidays. He commented on the many years he had seen me around and defined me as “The Person Behind the Smile”. I received these nice words as a most wonderful Holiday gift. I was obviously appreciative of the recognition, but it mainly highlighted the hope of extended life through progress in healthcare. I could immediately relate to why I am getting positive energy out of this volunteering activity. A volunteer’s identity is just based on ‘who you are’ and not ‘what you do’ or ‘what you represent’ through status, title or other attributes. This is both rewarding and humbling.


Reflecting on this experience led me to wonder how much of my initial ‘big plan’ was driven by my own ‘ego’ in achieving something ‘important’, a possible need to strengthen my professional positioning while still in remission or a true dedication to helping others. It is now quite obvious that the initial motivations were partially self-driven, while the actual simpler outcome was clearly focused on basic but very essential needs impacting a much larger patient population. Ultimately ‘making a difference’ was and should always have been the main driver. One colleague referred to the “purity of the intent to be helpful vs. a more structured intent to help in a specific way”.


I often get questions from patients as to why I made this commitment as a volunteer and why I have done it for so long. The answer really stands in the exchange with others. I contribute in a small way to the well-being of patients and I get enormous satisfaction from the experience. I also relate to this environment as a micro-society where respect of others and their differences comes naturally. This is quite a contrast with the reality of Society and Culture in a broader context and it helps me stay ‘grounded’ and in some way, hopeful.


Friends and colleagues also ask what is needed to become a volunteer in this type of hospital environment and whether my corporate executive consulting backgrounds help in any way. A deep interest in helping others is undoubtedly a major driver, at both the personal and professional level. Some of the skills practiced in Executive Coaching are quite relevant, including listening, questioning, observing and reflecting, with a total focus on the other person. It also reflects Manfred Kets de Vries’ guiding values and the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to our work.


This personal experience has in fact also been a source of professional learning in the context of change in organisations. It is widely known that most transformation projects eventually fail partially or totally, in spite of enormous resources allocated. One of the main reasons is the lack of attention to the people side of change.  The other one might be related to wide scale projects carried by one leader without ensuring that all levels of the organisation are on board. The related excessive focus on the rational aspects misses the power of emotional connections. As reflected through my experience at the hospital, an initial approach through smaller steps improves acceptability and sustainability.  These small steps may be less spectacular, but they tend to be more effective. Real transformation is best achieved through progressive behavioural change while grand schemes create temporary excitement before quickly falling flat. Culture change is the consequence of new behaviours and not the starting point, always keeping in mind who benefits from the change.


Back to my volunteer experience, the ‘ambition’ loop was eventually closed as I became involved in training new volunteers, developing a dedicated approach to new patients and being one of the founding members and co-Chair of the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Cancer. This allowed me to fulfill my goal to contribute to the improvement of the Patient Experience. I have also been involved in other initiatives, further expanding my reach. The mentoring aspect happens ad hoc and still has the potential to be ‘institutionalised’ possibly in a different context. Opportunities happen as a result of having first invested in small steps.


The journey continues and at the end, all it takes may just be a “smile”.


“People will not remember what you said, people will not remember what you did but they will always remember how you made them feel” - Maya Angelou

KDVI Writer's Colony, 2020

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Article Comments

Ann Houston Kelley

Mar 13, 12:26 AM

An eloquent reminder of how simple acts of kindness can have such a deep impact in this complex world.

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The Person Behind The Smile