Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hope Healthcare CEO makes advocacy her business

Originally published in Fort Myers News-Press Grandeur

Her first bout with cancer, when she was 24 years old, taught Lee's Hope Healthcare Services Samira Beckwith about power at a true grass-roots level. She was in the second year of a master's program in industrial psychology when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. It was the era, she says, when people still whispered the word "cancer," and when physicians thought that what the patients didn't know about their diagnosis and disease wouldn't hurt them.

Her first bout with cancer, when she was 24 years old, taught Lee's Hope Healthcare Services Samira Beckwith about power at a true grass-roots level. She was in the second year of a master's program in industrial psychology when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. It was the era, she says, when people still whispered the word "cancer," and when physicians thought that what the patients didn't know about their diagnosis and disease wouldn't hurt them.

"People were well-meaning; people were kind," she says. "But I thought about what I really disliked about the way everyone was treated as objects and diseases."

As Beckwith looked around at her fellow oncology patients (10 scheduled at once with one doctor, she remembers), she saw that the problems weren't with the people but the system.

Today, she's responsible for having changed much of what's typical about end-of-life, or hospice, care. This is true not only locally, in her position as CEO but as a national thought leader on the subject, having testified before Congress about end-of-life care and having held high-profile national association positions.

None of it happened according to plan, which was perhaps the secret path to her current leadership role.

"I prefer the word 'responsibility' to 'power,'" Beckwith says, but if she does wield influence, it's because of the way she's handled the unexpected and not from any five-year plan. If she hadn't had Hodgkin's disease, she wouldn't have gone into health care, says Beckwith, who is also a breast cancer survivor. It freed her in a way, too, she says, to be her authentic self.

"I always wanted to be like everyone else," says Beckwith, from the time she came here as a young child with her parents from Lebanon. Battling her disease, talking to other patients, she came to realize, she says, that "Everybody isn't like everybody else. When you get to know people, you find out they have their own story."

She doesn't count on the solidity of man-made plans. For Beckwith, chance is another word for opportunity.

"Things happen. The only things we can control are our actions," Beckwith says.

Every experience is a learning experience, and everyone holds power.

"Go out in the morning and decide that you're going to smile at everyone-they'll smile back," she says, adding "Wouldn't it be a different world?"