May You Find Your Nan

The time I have spent at Mayo Clinic has given me so much, but nothing will ever surpass the impact that the people have had on me.  By people I mean the people that I work with and the people that I have the opportunity to impact that come to Mayo Clinic looking for health and in some cases hope.

Out of all the people that have impacted me at Mayo Clinic, there was one person who I will always attribute for giving the work that I do the most meaning.  There is also one person that never missed an opportunity to remind me that it was the life outside of work that should and because of her always will have the most meaning to me.

I began working with Nan on a project in 2011, she was the lead for the project and I was one of the resources tapped from my division at Mayo Clinic to help her. She was probably the most intimidating person I have ever come across in my career.  She stood five foot something and weighed a hundred and something pounds and she had a southern accent and grit. Of course she would intimidate your father that stands 6’2″ and aspires to keep his weight under 300 pounds consistently and might be known for having a bit of untamed emotion.

Her intimidation came because she had such confidence about her and a way to influence discussions that those being influenced never knew that they were being influenced.  Not to mention that she was at a level at Mayo Clinic that very few will ever get to, but many aspire to do so.  Nan could you used her ability to influence and her position alone in many ways, but she chose what I saw as a singular focus.  Nan sought to make the lives of those around her better.

I will never forget my first one on one meeting with her.  It was middle to late 2012 and my primary efforts for her were to help her fill a position to support the efforts the project was intended to fulfill.  I had the lead working on the hiring effort with a partner in human resources. We had carefully screened a large pool of candidates and it came down to three people that I thought would have done a great job in the role.

The panel on the other hand which was led by Nan made the decision to not hire any of them. As a follow up to the meeting where that decision was made Nan asked me to schedule a meeting with her.  Normally I had always met with her with the person from human resources or a project manager, but she was very specific in wanting to meet with me by myself.

I had felt to some extent like I had failed her, that I had managed to waste her time and the time of the people on the panel and that the work that I was doing with her was about to come to an end.

The meeting with her was in the conference room next to her office and I was early to the meeting and sat in the conference room, nervous and sweating.  Nan came into the room and immediately mentioned how hot it was in the room which made me feel better and she even took off her jacket.  I would have done the same, but it would have been sure to reveal the pools of sweat that had accumulated on my shirt.

It was at that moment I noticed a port near her shoulder and as she sat down at the table she adjusted her wig.  I noticed for the first time that Nan might have cancer.  I had been in meetings with her at that point for over a year and prior to that remembered her giving one of the most inspirational speeches on the value of the physician and healthcare administrator partnership.  She had never shown any weakness or sign having cancer in any of those previous encounters, but at that moment I no longer saw her as intimidating or as an executive.  I saw her as a person.

When I think about her, I think about that moment a lot.  Did she remove her jacket and adjust her wig to help me relax?  Regardless, the first words out of her mouth after she did that were, “Looks like we have some more work to do, what do you think……”

Ultimately the discussion came to a point where I said that if she wasn’t looking for someone with a Masters that I would be interested, but we left with going back to the drawing board on the position “as is” until the next day.  She called me in my office and said that she was going to work directly with human resources on the job and that I was encouraged to apply as long as I was willing to get my Masters within three years.

It was the longest and hardest interview process that I ever went through which was unfortunately interrupted by a car accident that took me several months to recover from.  It came down to me and one other person for the position, who I knew through common acquaintances and she would have been great.  Ultimately though Nan hired me and back to school I went.

I am still in the job today and hope that the work that I am doing is fulfilling Nan’s vision, but I will never know for sure and there is a lot of pain that goes along with that.  The world lost Nan only four months after I started working for her in my new role in an official capacity.  She lost her battle with cancer.  CANCER SUCKS!!!

My last conversation with Nan was a week before we were both supposed to present to the leadership team.  It was a new approach for the effort that we had developed together and she was bound and determined to be there, but she had recently left on medical leave because she had started on a new treatment and things were not going great.

After Nan had hired me her health became a point of conversation, in part because I finally got the guts to ask her about it.  Even when I did she had said that there were many protocols that she had as options and that she intended to be around for a long time.  I never thought anything else to be true even that last time that I did talk to her and tell her not to worry about being there, in retrospect I wish I had not done that.  I wish she had come and I would have been able to see her one more time.

I shifted the conversation when she talked about wanting to be there to the fact that we had done our homework and I felt it was the right approach and based on everyones input that we would get the support we needed.   I told her that she should worry about getting back to be there when the real work would be starting.  She started to say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know when that will be or if I will be back’; but I changed topics and asked her how her family was doing and the last thing we ever talked about was how my family was doing.

In my first meeting working for Nan, after she had hired me, she started by asking how I was doing.  I had just come back from my 2012 car accident and it seemed like a perfectly normal thing to do, however it was how she started every meeting we had and then we got down to business.

Then with ten minutes to go in every meeting she would shutdown her iPad or push aside any papers and ask, “So tell me how your family is doing.”  We talked about you a lot, your mom a little and your baby sister that was on the way.  Every meeting, ten minutes to go, like clockwork, “So tell me how your family is doing.”

We live a little over an hour away from Mayo Clinic and she used to tell me that I should work from home as much as I could and that I should invest the time I save by not driving to and from work in you.

I didn’t right it down so I don’t know what she said verbatim, but I do know that she wished she could have had more time with her family and used to tell me about the importance of living in the moment and putting your family first whenever possible.

While I hope I am making Nan proud in the work I am trying to accomplish at Mayo Clinic, I really hope I am making her proud in my relationship with you, your mom and your little sister the most.  I hope it’s a long ways off, but if there is a “other side” I can’t wait to sit with her in her office again and answer the question, “So tell me how your family is doing?”

I’ll start my answer by thanking her for making my life better as she did for so many others.

Nan Sawyer

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