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Covering COVID-19 From My Kitchen

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of our lives. For me, what seemed to be a mild inconvenience (not celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a dinner and drinks out) turned into the most anxiety-producing and professionally challenging time in my freelance life.

Because I was born with transposition of the great arteries, a heart defect that makes me high risk for getting gravely sick from COVID-19, my husband and I decided to stay out of public places a week or two before our governor ordered all residents to shelter in place. We thought two weeks wouldn’t be so difficult; we have wine, Netflix, a stocked fridge and a tower of books to read. Paradise!

As a freelance healthcare writer, in typical times, assignments ebb and flow–“feast or famine” is the rule. In early March when businesses began to close and layoffs began, I focused on being available for my clients (primarily hospitals, medical schools, physician practices, and health advocacy organizations) as they looked to develop patient education pieces about the virus. For the past four months, I have been absolutely slammed. I have written more than 10,000 words of content related to COVID-19. In addition to the patient-focused pieces, I also have interviewed nearly 50 clinicians about their experience treating patients with COVID-19. It was an eye-opening and heart-wrenching experience, and I am honored these brave, skilled men and women trusted me to tell their stories.

And while I am ever so grateful for the work, all of this COVID talk has made me less than eager to rejoin society. I’ve been hiding behind my laptop for months, and I’ve become quite comfortable here. I live in Ortley Beach, a 1-square-mile town at the Jersey Shore that teems with vacationers this time of the year. While the influx of bodies and energy can be exciting, when you have a serious heart condition during a global pandemic, it can be cause for concern.

But, I’ve written enough articles about mental health to know that I can’t continue to live like this, typing away while ocean waves crash a few blocks away. Who, if not me, will drink the margaritas?! So my husband and I have jumped in the Jeep and dined outside at a few of our favorite local restaurants. To spruce up our backyard (which we rarely spent time in before quarantine), we’ve masked up and shopped at local decor and garden centers. We’ve even organized weekly socially distant happy hours with our neighbors, who are also feeling antsy to get back to the places that make living at the shore so special. Together on our front lawn, we feel a little less alone.

I’m looking forward to more adventures that allow me to temper safety with socialization; this is our busy season, and our beloved businesses are bleeding because they can’t operate at full capacity. I want to give them my hard-earned money because they’ve earned my loyalty over the last 44 years.

Yes, it’s been a rough four months, but there are six more months for 2020 to redeem itself. Stay safe. Mask up. Be smart. And most importantly, be kind to those who are struggling to get back out there.

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I’ve Been Bad … But I’m Working on it

coffee cup and laptop

So… yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post. The good news is that I’ve been busy with business-related writing. The bad news is that I’ve done little personal writing during that time, other than quick posts on social media.

In just the first 5 months of 2019 I’ve written about:

  • Asthma
  • Autism
  • Bariatric surgery
  • Breast cancer
  • Breast disease
  • Clubfoot
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Colostomy reversal
  • Diabetes
  • Ebola
  • Emergency medicine
  • Executive bios
  • Fitness
  • Gastroschisis
  • General surgery
  • Genital birth defects
  • GI services
  • Gynecology services
  • Health issues in minorities
  • Healthcare administration
  • Healthcare fundraising
  • Healthcare recruiting
  • Hospital administration
  • Hospitalist medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Interventional radiology
  • Interviewing skills
  • Leadership messages
  • Maternity services
  • Menopause
  • Mental health
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Myocardial infarction
  • New technology in healthcare
  • Nutrition
  • Operational excellence
  • Orthopedic surgery
  • Osteoporosis
  • Patient experience
  • Patient safety
  • Pediatric heart conditions
  • Pediatric trauma
  • Physical therapy
  • Physician burnout
  • Physician profiles
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Robotic surgery
  • Rosacea
  • Schizophrenia
  • Skull base tumors
  • Small business growth
  • Small business insurance
  • Social media in healthcare
  • Solar energy
  • Spina bifida
  • Sports rehabilitation
  • Swallowing disorders
  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Vector-borne diseases
  • Wellness programs
  • Workers compensation
  • Wound care

It’s been crazy busy and super interesting. You can read some of the clips that have been published thus far. I love what I do and I feel blessed to be able to make a living doing it every day.

However, I haven’t had the discipline to do any personal writing, and after a few years of personal and professional heartache and growth, I’ve got a bunch of “stuff” percolating in my head. So, to build some discipline into my days, I’m starting a memoir writing workshop this month at Ocean County College here in Toms River, NJ.

As a lifetime lover of the classroom, I’m excited… and as a part-time introvert, I’m a little nervous. BUT, I know that I’m an upholder (according to Gretchen Rubin), so hardwiring discipline is key for me.

Stay tuned for more about my memoir-writing journey!

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Reviving My Sense of Adventure

travel items

Before my parents got sick, before my corporate job was on thin ice, before we were juggling two houses and four animals, my husband and I traveled often. Sometimes it was behind the wheel of our SUV, sometimes in coach with a coveted packet of peanuts, sometimes on foot with backpacks, we found new places to explore and recharge.

We were freer people those days, with less emotional–and literal–baggage. I miss those people.

I recently finished reading Without Reservation: The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach. Published in 2000, the book is a travelog-style memoir, a more historical, more reserved Eat, Pray, Love.

Like me, Alice Steinbach was a writer. And, like me, she often experienced life behind the lens of chronicler of time. The skills that make us more observant and our senses heightened can also create a wall between living in the moment and mentally documenting the memory instead of actually experiencing it. You know, when you compose an Instagram post in your head–complete with the requisite 9 hashtags–instead of feeling all the feels in real time. That.

She writes, “What you need to do, a voice inside me said, is to step out and experience the world without recording it first in a reporter’s notebook. After fifteen years of writing stories about other people, you need to get back into the narrative of your own life.” Yes!

During her travels, she learns to let go of her schedule a bit and be more present. If a mishap occurs, altering her plans, she vows to lean into the change and follow the adventure wherever it leads. Yes yes!

“Why, I wondered, couldn’t I feel this way more often? The answer, I decided, was that having fun isn’t really what most of us do best. What most of us do best is work and worry,” Steinbach writes. “Often we combine the two into one consuming preoccupation: worrying about work…. I found myself trying to figure out how much of my life had been consumed by worrying. If totaled up in years, what would it amount to? One year? Five? Ten? Whatever the figure, it was too high.” Preach!

Worry and anxiety and fear had derailed me, I realize. I no longer leap; I research and whiteboard it, create a spreadsheet and run the numbers. I’ve taken the fun out of life and replaced it with… ugh. Boring. I’d replaced it with boring. I’ve realized that we got into the habit of being “too busy” for adventure, and even when our situation changed, we remained stuck in neutral.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” asks American poet Mary Oliver. Life is indeed precious. Let’s not forget it. Let’s not replace spontaneity with stagnation.

This time next year I hope to echo Alice: “I had surprised myself this year by jumping in to reshape my life before life stepped in to reshape it for me.”

Let’s do this thing.

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Storytelling Can Turn Oatmeal Cookies into Chocolate Chip

chocolate chip cookie

I’ve been watching The Office (U.S.) from the beginning in my downtime over the last few months. Since I no longer work in an office with quirky co-workers, watching the show helps fill that role a bit.

I recently watched the “Gettysburg” episode (Season 8, Episode 8). While half the Dunder Mifflin staff is on a leadership retreat with Andy on the battlefield in Pennsylvania, several team members have stayed behind in the office. Robert California, the company’s CEO, unexpectedly shows up at the office and decides to use the time for some intense brainstorming with the skeleton staff.

Lovable accountant Kevin Malone remarks about where chocolate chip cookies appear in the building’s vending machine. Chocolate chip cookies are in the upper left slot—A1—which Kevin surmises is because the person filling the vending machine thinks that’s prime real estate. But Kevin says his eyes automatically go to the middle of the machine’s offerings—slot D4—where the oatmeal cookies are. No one wants oatmeal cookies, says Kevin, so why are they in the middle, where everyone’s eyes go?

Robert thinks Kevin’s observation is an analogy for how Dunder Mifflin is wasting facilities and manpower on its underselling products—the oatmeal cookies—instead of pushing top performers, the chocolate chip cookies. This leads to an at-times meaningful discussion about which of the company’s products are being pushed by corporate despite being poorly received by company’s customers.

This got me thinking:

  • What’s your company’s oatmeal cookie? What service is your hospital or medical practice pushing even though it’s not as popular with patients as other services?
  • When does a loss leader become just a loss?
  • How do you decide whether to nix a service or continue investing time, money and resources on trying to promote it?
  • Is it purely a financial decision, or, as healthcare providers, are there ethical or “greater good” implications?

At times, it comes down to how the service is being promoted:

  • Are you highlighting the benefits that your patients will see?
  • Are your marketing materials written from the perspective of your patients?
  • Are you educating your consumers about how this service will alleviate pain and/or improve their quality of life?
  • And most importantly, are you telling a story?

Healthcare is personal, so your marketing should be, too. How has this service impacted a patient’s life? What wasn’t she able to do before, and how is she able to do it now? What did your patient’s return to wellness mean for his spouse and children?

Patients are living longer, which is inherently a great thing. But how well are they living? That’s where you come in. How can your practice make that life better?

I don’t know how many times I hear, “I’m really not that interesting” when interviewing a patient. Very few think that they have a compelling story, but by asking thought-provoking questions and getting to the root of each patient’s “why,” you can craft a patient success story that highlights how medicine is improving lives. And isn’t that why you got into medicine in the first place?

What’s your underperforming service line? How can we make that patient experience more personal? Let your patients’ stories drive your practice forward.

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Love and Ruin: When Gellhorn Met Hemingway

I’ve never been one to fall for the Ernest Hemingway type — barrel-chested and full of bravado. But I’ve read a few books about Ernest recently and have a bit more respect for the tortured artist that he was.

I won an advance reader’s edition of Paula McLain’s forthcoming novel, Love and Ruin, which explores Hemingway’s relationship with fellow writer Martha Gellhorn. It’s one of those tempest-in-a-teapot tales of love and lust, competition and companionship, and, ultimately, the dramatic end of a troubled relationship.

I’ve been a fan of Paula McLain for a few years. I love the way that she can tell a story with such beauty. Not only is the story compelling, but her choice of words is a master class in creative writing.

Here are some of my favorite passages from Love and Ruin:

I had lived in Paris on and off for years, trying to be a writer and also falling in love a lot, without being terribly successful at either.

And yet here we were, anyway, hurtling through the dark toward each other under a hundred million stars, and set to collide disastrously. Logic wouldn’t save us and neither would the dwindling pile of days. We had all the time in the world to make a terrible mistake.

He was never yours, a voice in my head said. But what did that matter? I had lost him just the same.

I snapped a blank page into the roller, sending a sharp report echoing through the rooms. The page was snowy white. It still held all of its secrets. There was nothing to do but begin.

We weren’t in competition, I tried to tell myself. It only felt that way because we were working in the same house, in plain sight of the other’s fire pit. If it happened to be his turn to blaze now, my chance was surely coming. In the meantime, I would lean in close and warm my hands and smile for him. And love him.

Real writing, I was beginning to realize, was more like laying bricks than waiting for lightning to strike. It was painstaking. It was manual labor. And sometimes, sometimes if you kept putting the bricks down and let your hands just go on bleeding, and didn’t look up and didn’t stop for anything, the lightning came. Not when you prayed for it, but when you did your work.

The book he was writing mattered more than it ever had, I realized. It would outlast all this chaos and senseless death. It would live long after all the stupid things humans did to one another had healed over. That’s what great art was for, I thought.

Even when other things come in loud, we have to keep choosing each other. That’s marriage. You can’t only say the words once and think they’ll stick. You have to say them over and over, and then live them out with all you’ve got.

I learn more about the craft of writing with each book that I read. What books have you read lately and how have they impacted your work?


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What We Can Learn About Writing from Vincent Van Gogh

Lust for Life book

My mother was an artist, so I grew up in a house piled high with paints, canvases, easels, glazes, frames, art books and more. In fact, when I moved out of my parents’ house in the late 90s, she turned my bedroom into her art studio. I’m writing in that room now, and I can feel her creative mojo here still.

While my mother worked in paint and ceramics (and sometimes music notes), I work in words. But honestly, no matter the medium, the struggles are often the same. My husband is a chef and my son is a songwriter. We all still get blocked creatively sometimes and get nervous when someone views our work.

I recently finished reading Irving Stone’s Lust for Life. Published in 1934, the novel is a fictionalized account of Vincent Van Gogh’s growth and struggles as an artist. Van Gogh dabbled in other professions before becoming obsessed with art and pouring hundreds of hours a week into honing his craft and trying to find his unique artistic voice. Quite simply, it drove him mad.

Most would say I still have my wits about me, yet there are several passages in the novel that struck a chord. Here are a few:

“Whatever you do, you will do well. Ultimately, you will express yourself and that expression will justify your life.”

“I can’t draw a figure without knowing all about the bones and muscles and tendons that are inside it. And I can’t draw a head without knowing what goes on in that person’s brain and soul. In order to paint life one must understand not only anatomy, but what people feel and think about the world they live in. The painter who knows his own craft and nothing else will turn out to be a very superficial artist.”

“Do you call yourself an artist?”
“How absurd. You never sold a picture in your life.”
“Is that what being an artist means — selling? I thought it meant one who was always seeking without absolutely finding. I thought it meant the contrary from ‘I know it, I have found it.’ When I say I am an artist, I only mean ‘I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.'”

“The artist has the liberty to exaggerate, to create in his novel a world more beautiful, more simple, more consoling than ours.” (Attributed to Maupassant)

“Then you like it?”
“As for that, I cannot say. I only know that it makes me feel something, in here.”
He ran his hand upward over his chest.

Many resources recommend writing what you know. I agree, to an extent. As creatives, we must also grow outside our walls, our comfort zones, our experiences to bring in new inspiration – and a little whimsy.

What books have inspired your work? What phrases speak to your craft?

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How I Found Myself Unemployed — and Found My Voice

2017 was the year sh*t got real. I had been limping along, half-heartedly pursuing freelance writing and editing gigs part time for the last few years, unable to cut the umbilical cord to the corporate world. And then the corporate world cut me.

At the end of August my position at one of the largest physician services companies in the country was eliminated, ending my seven-year career there. After an acquisition followed by a merger that had begun to feel like a takeover, I knew there was a good chance I’d be given my walking papers. As talented colleagues were downsized, my role was downscaled. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, but enjoyed working with our physicians, gaining their trust and telling their personal stories. So, I hung on.

In situations like these, waiting can be a choice, or it can be a sign of catatonia. For me, it was clearly a choice, and then the decision was made for me. I won’t lie, I was shocked when I received the call. Having never been let go before, my initial reaction was tears, and then I started moving through Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s Five Stages of Grief – sometimes feeling all five at the same moment. I knew their decision was based on economics, and not personal, but it stung just the same.

I gave myself that first weekend to wallow, and on Monday I started pounding the digital pavement. I reached out to my LinkedIn network, informing them of my career change and letting them know that I had launched my own business. And just a quickly as my ego was bruised by the layoff, my contacts confirmed that I had indeed brought value to the industry. They offered to meet for coffee, send me RFPs, introduce me to the marketing communications decision-makers on their teams. I felt validated and vindicated. And a bit petrified.

As I’m wrapping up my first full quarter as a freelance writer and editor, I still battle with doubts and moments of sheer terror. But I love words, and I love – and excel at – helping companies communicate with their audiences. I’m excited when a client requests a strategy document. I delve into the research, and offer actionable steps that they can take to move the needle toward hitting their marketing, sales and communications goals. I rework tired copy and make it sing with new life. I’m getting a steady stream of work, some challenging, some fun – always fulfilling. I am doing my best work, and it’s under my terms.

Sure, I’ve made some mistakes this year, but by quickly turning a career tragedy into a career triumph, I feel more “me” than I have in years. For two decades I’ve pushed executives to use their authentic voice in their communications and speak to employees on paper just as they would in person. I’ve found MY authentic voice this year, and I am so very excited for what 2018 holds for my business.

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The Top 7.5 Articles for the Creatively Ambitious Bookmarked in 2017

I not only create content, I also consume it, a lot … on my laptop, phone, iPad, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, via email, at the coffee shop, on my couch, in the passenger seat, on the beach, on my deck. Lots of reading in lots of places.

I bookmarked a bunch of interesting articles in 2017, and here is just a taste.

What articles did you bookmark this year? I’m always consuming, so keep me well-fed.

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3 Tips for Silencing the Noise in Your Newsfeed

I love that technology allows me to work from any location on the planet, stream Stranger Things at Panera and buy the latest Anita Shreve book at 11 p.m. from the comfort of my bed – and my yoga pants.

What can be overwhelming, though, is the constant chatter in my in-box and social media feeds. To quiet the chaos, I’ve taken a few steps to better curate the content that I’m receiving. Here’s how:

  1. In the wise words of Marie Kondounsubscribe to any email newsletters that no longer bring you joy. OK, so maybe those weren’t Marie’s words exactly but you get the idea. What was once relevant to your work or personal life may have outlasted its usefulness. Instead of deleting the riffraff each day, week, month, simply click “unsubscribe” and divorce the sender for good.
  2. Facebook can be a time suck. You log on to check if the photos from your daughter’s latest soccer game have been posted and you’re bombarded by friends selling everything from essential oils to wrinkle cream, political posts and *gasp* fake news. And if you’re like me, you “like” a lot of business pages: new restaurants, island resorts that you’d like to visit, the Star Trek actor with the funny memes, the cabinet-refacing company you used four years ago. If you see posts from companies, groups or even people who no longer need or deserve your attention, “unfollow” themto create a more focused newsfeed. Unfollowing a friend doesn’t “unfriend” them, it just means you’ll need to go to their page to see their posts. And, if you see an ad in your stream that you’d rather not see, click the three dots in the upper right corner of the ad to adjust your advertising settings. A quick click can create lasting calm.
  3. If you feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of tweets that you’re seeing on Twitter, a good way to create targeted news streams is to create lists. Creating a list essentially creates a channel. I’ve created a bunch of lists – writers, healthcare, politics, women’s issues, local, etc. – for the subjects that I’m interested in, and have assigned the Twitter accounts that I follow to one or more lists. Only want to see sports news? Create a “sports” list, add the sports figures that you follow to it, and you won’t see anything about the Kardashians (well, one can hope). And, going through the accounts you follow on Twitter is a great time to refine the list and unfollow those that are no longer relevant.

Your time is valuable. By using some of it to fine-tune your information streams, you’ll separate the wheat from the chaff and drill down to the news and entertainment (read: memes) that are truly meaningful to you.