Donald Armstrong: A Lesson in Resilience

I would not like to think of myself as a fair-weather leader. As it turns out, I am!

I like for things to run smoothly and to have happy, engaged employees. Who doesn’t? But, as most of us know, “normal is the exception, and chaos is the rule.”

Most days are pretty routine, and we go about our business of repairs, projects, preventive maintenance, and ad-hoc calls and demands. We are pretty proficient at this standard biomed work. But something happened earlier this year that rocked us to our core and nearly knocked us out. We wondered how we’d ever come back from this!

I’ll set up the situation. We at Stanford Health Care are a very busy in-house biomed department, with more than 50 staff members (ten are admins). We are also setting up to activate a brand-new 600 bed hospital with more than 20,000 new devices. As a senior manager who is very involved with operations, I started to notice a high volume of battery failures on our infusion devices.

During my investigation, I realized that I had missed a service bulletin from the manufacturer that specified a new, updated battery replacement schedule. The first thing I had to do was report this to my director and to leadership (including safety and quality). This was tough and something I don’t want to have to do again. I wasn’t really worried about how they would react to my mistake, but I knew that I had let down the patients and the biomeds and clinicians working on and with the devices.

Once we had all the information, we set about planning to check all 1,100 infusion devices with batteries. We had to pull all the batteries to check the dates and replace them if they were out of date. This was expensive and time consuming. Not only have that, this put a bright spotlight on our department. Some of it was tough to handle but some of it was very positive, as biomed was looked upon as a team that could take decisive action when needed.

After all the batteries were checked or replaced, we found ourselves in recovery mode, specifically with our clinical partners and within our own team. What we had to do to catch up on the mistake was exhausting and expensive. It took just over two weeks to get this work done, which is crazy fantastic in my eyes. Our biomed team (including leadership) worked lots of hours and had to put themselves in the line of fire to get this done. It took a toll for sure.

So, how did we bounce back from this punch in the gut? How resilient are we? To quote a colleague and resilience expert, Pam Spivey, resilience is “being able to bounce back even when things are difficult or you face disappointment.”

This event was certainly difficult and disappointing! The first thing I had to do was to be totally transparent with our team. What I told them is that “I had messed up, and now we are in this mess.”

This was not completely my fault, by the way, as the process of receiving recalls and alerts is complicated—but as the leader it is on me. By being transparent with my team, we all took this on as one unified group. This really helped with the recovery.

I also communicated with all members of my team to let them know how much their work and hours spent on this were appreciated and that we understood the work was rushed and difficult but was critical to our patient. Did they ever respond!

The leaders also pitched in with the physical work to support the team. During the process, I kept a positive attitude and I kept up the message that “this is how we learn and get better.” Honestly, nothing is perfect (unfortunately), but we have to adapt and learn.

We actually came out of this event a closer-knit group. We worked hard and faced a difficult and challenging situation. In the end, everything worked out and we came out the other side looking and feeling great.

Donald Armstrong, CBET, CHTM, is a senior biomedical engineering manager at Stanford Health Care in California and a member of the BI&T Editorial Board.

4 thoughts on “Donald Armstrong: A Lesson in Resilience

  1. Owning our mistakes is possibly the most important aspect of leadership, at the same time the it goes against our primal drive for self preservation. I have always had respect for leaders that admit they are fallible over those that make excuses. Well done!

  2. Don, this was a true test of your leadership and you passed with flying colors. Your tools, transparency and fearless approach took you to new heights. To quote the famous author John C. Maxwell, “Speak the truth. Transparency breeds legitimacy.” To your team you proved you can take the helm through the roughest of storms and come out victorious. To the leadership, you are an effective, trustworthy, and yes, a resilient leader that can be trusted to get things done through the toughest of adversities. To yourself, you have a new personal best… growing, wiser and a better person. “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” TJefferson. Well done! Congratulations to you and your talented and gifted team (Yes, they are!)

  3. Well done my friend! No one is perfect, yet we do strive for it. Great process of recovery, implanting, coordinating, and executing your plan! Congrats to you and the staff!

    Dean Skillicorn

  4. Well that Sucks. As most every hospital using those pumps this is a big ordeal. We too had to wade through this mire and make it happen. No we weren’t behind the 8 ball and had it missed but we had to do it just the same as you did. When the pallet of 600 batteries showed up at our door we knew it was only going to be a team effort to make this happen. So once we go the green light we all headed into the deep water. Like your department it was everyone’s job to make it happen. Whether it was gathering pumps, swapping batteries, or in our case performing the PM on the pumps and changing versus tracking tags. We made it go.

    It is refreshing to hear you own the initial situation. That let your employees know you are human. It makes everyone feel more willing to help. You took the reains and everyone climbed aboard. That is what I love about Biomed. When we have to work as a team it doesn’t take much to make it happen. Congrats on a job well done!

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