Jeff Balser, President and CEO of Vanderbilt Medical Center and Dean of the Vanderbilt Medical School, has a front row seat to some of the most terrifying – and hopeful – things that are going on right now. I’m delighted for him and his wife Melinda – a radiant community leader – to share their impressions at Bacon today…
I’m so glad you found the right moment for this interview, Jeff and Melinda! Thank you!
Jeff, what’s your daily life like right now? What is your state of mind?
Life as VUMC’s CEO is always full of the unexpected, but COVID-19 certainly amplifies the number of “didn’t see that coming” moments each day. Yet there has never been a time in my nearly 30 years at VUMC when the inspiring, amazing moments were more visible – and more than anything, it is those moments that give me hope. We are learning to think and work in new ways that will not only sustain us, but make us capable of overcoming some of the daunting challenges we faced in healthcare long before we were living in a global pandemic.
Melinda, how has your daily life changed? What is your state of mind? Can you say anything yet about Symphony Ball 2020, as co-chair?
The most significant change to our daily lives is that our daughter, Maddie, moved back home from Colorado a month ago. She works remotely for her job with the University of Colorado and it has been a joy to have her at home again!
The pace of my life has changed dramatically. In “normal” times we do a lot of entertaining in the evening so I had gotten out of the habit of cooking. I’ve been reading cookbooks, cooking and baking which have been good creative outlets for me. I am still able to join in on Zoom board meetings for The Nashville Food Project, The Nashville Symphony and The New Beginnings Center.
Believe it or not, we are working on the 2020 Symphony Ball! I can’t say anything specific yet but we are hopeful.
I feel like everything changes every day. How do you plan for anything in these times?
Jeff: I have begun to refer to my daily calendar as a “proposal.” It’s been important to balance my native desire for a detailed plan with a significant degree of openness and optimism in our ability to navigate through whatever comes.
Melinda: It’s been a challenge! I think the uncertainty of what the rest of 2020 and 2021 will look like is difficult to fathom and can be really anxiety-provoking. I am heartbroken for several friends and family members who have had to postpone wedding plans. Workwise I am thankful for the technology that allows us to connect with one another for virtual meetings. I am amazed at what can be accomplished in a Zoom meeting!
Do things seem to be getting better in Nashville? How do you feel that we have responded as a city? How has your neighborhood responded? Your friends?
Jeff: There is no doubt in my mind that social distancing has worked, causing the “curve to be flattened” in Nashville. A real question is whether we can all continue to do the hard work to maintain social distancing and keep the infection rates low, even as we begin to reopen some business activities.
Melinda: Our neighborhood is a very social place under normal circumstances. During the Time of Corona the streets and sidewalks have been crowded (6 feet apart!) with walkers, runners, baby strollers and dogs. I think the worst thing for me has been missing my friends. I try to schedule social distance walks as a way of staying close.
What has surprised you about yourself or others in the Time of Corona?
Melinda: I have let my introvert tendencies thrive a bit! I am enjoying the extra time to read, paint, and work puzzles.
How worried are you about getting the virus yourself?
Jeff: I spent years as an attending in the ICU caring for patients with infections before moving to administration, and I suspect that experience desensitized me to worries about “catching things.” While I’m very careful, I worry much more about my family getting the virus.
Melinda: I am definitely worried about it but I worry more about the vulnerable people in my life contracting the virus. My mother is in an assisted living home in Florida and I miss being able to visit her.
What has been hardest about this time? What do you miss most?
Jeff: I’m finding that while zoom meetings work well from a “functional” perspective, and certainly save us a lot of time and even travel costs, the more subtle benefits and joys associated with meeting and sharing with people directly are very real and are not entirely replaceable. We will eventually need a balance of the two.
Melinda: I miss the human interactions during the course of a day.
What has not changed at all?
Melinda: My sense of joy that it is Springtime!
What do you do to relax/decompress?
Jeff: I’ve started keeping a journal – finding the time to write in it is still a challenge, but on weekend mornings I’m enjoying the process of transferring some of my thoughts about this experience into words on paper.
Melinda: Prayer and meditation. I love to read, paint, listen to instrumental music as I putter around the house and walk the dogs through my neighborhood. We had a social distancing cocktail hour with friends in Michigan the other night and I was surprised by how relaxing and fun it was!
What simple (or complicated) pleasure do you especially appreciate in the Time of Corona?
Jeff: Before the Time of Corona, Melinda and I attended a tremendous number of events related to our role with VUMC. While much of that activity we enjoyed and there are so many people we greatly miss, having more time together during the evenings has been a guilty pleasure.
Melinda: I am trying to view this time as a retreat and a gift of added time to be present in the moment. I am so thankful for Nashville’s beautiful parks – especially Percy Warner, Radnor and Beaman!
What are you reading, watching, or listening to?
Jeff: Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Manchester. Melinda read it and recommended it to me.
Melinda: I always have several books going. Right now I am reading Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe,
Untamed by Glennon Doyle,
and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
During evenings in the Time of Corona we have started watching a couple of series on TV – “Blacklist” (Jeff’s favorite), “Fleabag” and “The Good Place”. I insist we end the evening with a comedy! (JP: I am crazy about “The Good Place,” Melinda!)
How do you think you will be changed by Life in the Time of Corona? Our society… our world?
Jeff: My hopeful side wonders whether the magnitude of this will shake our society into a new level of consciousness, causing us to spend less time focused on our differences and more time building upon what we share.
Melinda: One hope I have is that humankind will take climate change seriously and focus on green economic recovery.
And to finish up with a few speed dating questions, just for fun…
Favorite comfort food in the Time of Corona?
Jeff: Melinda’s amazing sandwiches that I take to work every day
Melinda: Homemade whole wheat bread toasted with butter
Jeff: Diet Dr. Pepper
Melinda: The first sip of coffee in the morning. Also Pinot Noir in the evening.
Jeff: Watching The Blacklist series – we are on season 2
Melinda: Ice cream
Jeff: Elliptical 3-4 times a week
Melinda: Running 2X week, Hiking 1X week, Weight training 2X week and walks daily
Jeff: The news I see during working out on the elliptical 3-4 times a week
Melinda: Distracted drivers
How much news do you watch/read?
Jeff: As above
Melinda: I try to limit myself. I usually catch about 30 minutes of CNN news and I subscribe to both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and read bits and pieces each day.
Most important virtue in the Time of Corona (in yourself or others)?
Jeff: While we are all becoming far more adept at using more advanced ways to communicate electronically, I’m also struck by the inadequacy of this form of relating to people. Corona may help us remember to be more “present” for people – a silver lining.
Melinda: patience and kindness
First place you’ll go when you’re comfortable flying again…
Jeff: Amelia Island
Melinda: Amelia Island
Most grateful for…
Melinda: My husband, family and close friends