Carla Tardif of Family Reach: “Heroes show up for people who are suffering”

To be a hero you are putting others’ needs ahead of your own. Heroes show up for people who are suffering. I sincerely appreciate that we are recognizing our health workers during COVID-19 and calling them out for the heroes that they are. There are so many additional examples of heroes and as someone who […]

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To be a hero you are putting others’ needs ahead of your own. Heroes show up for people who are suffering. I sincerely appreciate that we are recognizing our health workers during COVID-19 and calling them out for the heroes that they are. There are so many additional examples of heroes and as someone who is surrounded by them, I can also tell you being a hero means:

You are too tired to keep going, but you do it anyway. You are so scared about what is happening around you but you show up anyway. You see the suffering that breaks your heart daily, but you come back anyway. You aren’t showing up for the recognition, you’re showing up because it’s what you were meant to do.

Ask any ‘hero’ and their response will be the same, “I did what anyone else would do in this situation.” This isn’t really the case, but it’s what proves they are a hero.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Tardif. Running enthusiast, patient advocate, and CEO of Family Reach, Carla Tardif is a spirited leader who isn’t afraid to go the distance. She’s been leading the charge against the financial hardships of a cancer diagnosis for over 10 years, making tangible impacts for cancer patients and their families through innovative solutions and collaboration.

Tardif led Family Reach from a family-founded organization to a national nonprofit with the mission of preventing and reducing the financial burden of cancer for families today, while developing collaborative solutions to enable systemic change tomorrow. Her knowledge and experience has made her a sought-after speaker across the U.S.

Under her leadership, Family Reach increased its hospital network from 5 east coast sites to more than 400 top-tier hospitals and cancer centers nationwide, expanding from 200,000 dollars annually to over 10 million dollars annually. Such tremendous growth means Family Reach can impact more than 40,000 people affected by cancer each year.

Expanding her reach throughout the cancer space, Tardif is also on the board of the SHEPHERD Foundation, a nonprofit focused on transforming healthcare policy and funding treatment for rare cancers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in a suburb outside of Boston and am the oldest of 3 girls. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs and without saying it out loud, taught by example that this is what adulthood looks like.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m going with the first book that popped into my head, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. This story is about unwavering loyalty, perseverance, and the grace and heartache that life promises all of us. It plays out through a little boy named Billy who saved his money for two years to buy his own Redbone Coonhounds for hunting companions. He had a vision of what they could accomplish together and stayed true to the dream that was in his heart. I took great comfort in Billy’s bond with his two dogs and knew that whatever obstacles they encountered on their adventures they would get through them together.

I remember reading this book and wondering when I would ‘get my vision’ and what my life’s journey would be. Oddly enough, I wasn’t in a rush to figure that out because this book taught me that once it struck, it was impossible to ignore and the idea of being carefree was going to be left in the shadows. There was no question that one day I’d find my purpose. I also knew myself well enough to know that when I did, it would be tunnel vision and that I too wouldn’t be in it alone.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I have many!

The one that first gave me permission to set out on this path was from Mother Teresa.
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.”

When I first learned about Family Reach and the mission to eradicate the financial crisis a cancer diagnosis ensues on a family, everyone told me it was too big of a problem and that I was trying to ‘boil the ocean.’ I was asked again and again, ‘Why not put your energy and talents into something you can actually change?’ Honestly, I might have followed that advice had I not made a deathbed promise to my dear friend Pat Kelly who died of brain cancer at 38.

He and I went to Syracuse University together, he was a tight end for the SU Orangemen and went on to play in the NFL for the Jets and the Broncos. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in his early 30s, married to the love of his life and they had a little boy who shared his name. When he went through cancer treatment he would visit the pediatric oncology floor to cheer up the kids battling cancer.

He’d call me after every visit to tell me the families he met weren’t talking about cancer, they were talking about going broke because of missed work, lost jobs, and the constant out-of-pocket expenses required to travel back and forth to the hospital, and in many cases had other children that needed child care. Once he called me because a single mom, who he had just met on the Peds floor with her 2-year-old daughter who was battling brain cancer, was crying on the front steps of the hospital because she didn’t have enough cab fare to go pick up her 4-year-old at pre-school. So you see, if I looked at the mass, I would have turned away, but I just looked at the one and decide to rush in.

The saying that keeps me reaching for new heights and to dare greatly is:
‘It’s impossible’ said Pride.
‘It’s risky’ said Experience
‘It’s pointless’ said Reason
‘Give it a try’ whispered the Heart.

I thrive when I’m out of my comfort zone and pushing my limits. The key for me has been to surround myself with the right people. People who aren’t afraid to think big, who are measured and can help me look at an opportunity from many different angles and who are also really energized by what is possible. I could give you countless examples but will instead share that every day I ‘get still’ to listen to that whisper because I know there’s something great waiting for me to hear its calling and that I’m surrounded by people who share my passion for change. It’s so important to ‘get still’ so you don’t miss something really innovative and frankly obvious.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

COVID-19 has shown the world what a health crisis followed by a financial crisis looks like. Fear of getting sick, job loss, housing and food insecurities, isolation, and loneliness — That’s cancer. This is the space that Family Reach has been living in for 25 years. We’ve created financial wrap-around services to address the financial crisis of cancer and we are seeing people affected by COVID-19 go through a similar reality. Family Reach wants to offer our financial wrap-around services to COVID-19 patients and their families because we know we have resources and solutions that can help. To stand by and do nothing, isn’t an option.

When COVID-19 strikes and someone ends up in the hospital for an extended amount of time or if a loved one passes away, there is a deep financial and emotional strain on the family. Family Reach can help navigate these unchartered waters for families who in an instant find themselves without income, and at a total loss of where to begin to reach out for help. We have created a Financial Guidebook for cancer patients and are adapting it for everyone affected by COVID-19 because there are some stark similarities in what they are dealing with. We are grateful we can offer much-needed support and guidance to families affected by COVID-19 at this time.

We’ve also made our online grant application available for cancer patients on our website. Normally cancer patients are referred by a hospital social worker to receive our financial wrap-around services, but because hospital personnel is stretched so thin, we made our application available to people who aren’t able to talk to a social worker. It’s been game-changing in our ability to connect directly to people in deep need.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

To be a hero you are putting others’ needs ahead of your own. Heroes show up for people who are suffering. I sincerely appreciate that we are recognizing our health workers during COVID-19 and calling them out for the heroes that they are. There are so many additional examples of heroes and as someone who is surrounded by them, I can also tell you being a hero means:

You are too tired to keep going, but you do it anyway. You are so scared about what is happening around you but you show up anyway. You see the suffering that breaks your heart daily, but you come back anyway. You aren’t showing up for the recognition, you’re showing up because it’s what you were meant to do.

Ask any ‘hero’ and their response will be the same, “I did what anyone else would do in this situation.” This isn’t really the case, but it’s what proves they are a hero.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

There are heroes everywhere!

  1. Selflessness — your needs aren’t part of the formula. Caretakers are heroes. They care for a sick loved one around the clock, are likely making sure other family members are getting their needs met and balancing everyday life. A single parent who has a child with cancer has to navigate making medical decisions for a very sick child, make daily arrangements to keep their other children fed, bathed and functioning, juggle bills without an income (most parents lose or quit their job to care for their child) and manage debilitating anxiety and fear around the survival of their child. Many moms of children with cancer tell me they get through the day on adrenaline and then retreat to a quiet corner after everyone is asleep, and break down and cry in private. The next day they get up and do it all over again.
  2. Bravery — feeling fear, but doing it anyway. This unequivocally belongs to our frontline healthcare providers. I know COVID-19 nurses, who have young children and are putting themselves in the line of fire every day by caring for COVID-19 patients. One of the nurses I know has a little boy in remission from cancer. She comes home from work, changes in the garage, heads right to the shower, and sleeps on the couch so she doesn’t risk infecting her family.
  3. Kindness — Genuinely caring about other human beings. My daughter is a junior in college and pays her own daily expenses. She works hard at school and at Whole Foods to make money. Early on in the pandemic, she was in line at a grocery store cash register and the woman in front of her was buying groceries for her and her children. Once the groceries were rung up, the woman handed the cashier her food stamps, but the machine was broken and wouldn’t accept them. The clerk proceeded to unpack her bags to take the groceries back because her food stamps couldn’t be processed. Without hesitation, fuss or a scene, my daughter stepped up and quietly handed over her credit card to pay for this woman’s groceries so she could feed her family. The woman shared her relief, confessing in that moment, she literally didn’t know what she was going to do if she had to leave the store without food. She lost her job as a school teacher, left her three children at home while she grocery shopped, and needed to get home to feed them. My daughter doesn’t have a lot of money, and she works hard for what she does have, but without hesitation, she put herself in this woman’s shoes and showed up as her hero that day.
  4. Tireless — you have to be fueled by it. I work with many nonprofits who have similar missions to Family Reach. We collaborate together and call it our LiFT Network. Through the network, I see hundreds of nonprofits who all started in memory of a loved one. Most of them lost a child to cancer and are choosing to honor their memory by giving back to help others living the nightmare of pediatric cancer. I’m in awe of their willingness to stay close to the heartache and to show up for others who are experiencing it too. They are a light for others who are in the darkest times of their lives and aren’t afraid to immerse themselves in the memories and trauma they experienced to help others.
  5. Leadership — Very few heroes are in it alone, they’re surrounded by people who share their vision or passion and play a role. I’m in awe watching Chef Jose Andres rush in when there’s a crisis to feed millions of people who need it. Whether it’s the first responders or the people affected by the crisis, he created World Kitchen to make sure they get this basic need met, food. He could not do this alone and is surrounded by generous, tireless people who are executing his vision.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

A hero isn’t thinking about themselves. They see a situation that isn’t okay, feel someone’s pain, and literally can’t ‘unsee it’. For many heroes, they’d rather step in to do something scary or self-sacrificing, than live with the knowledge that they could have done something to help, but chose not to.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
The individual stories that were making the news about people who had loved ones in the hospital for weeks or who lost a loved one to COVID-19 were sounding all too familiar. The difference is that a battle with cancer often lasts for many years. One of our Family Reach family founders, Rick Morello, reached out and shared a story about a woman who lost her young husband in a matter of days to COVID-19 and now she was home alone with 3 small children and had absolutely no idea what to do. This is our area of expertise. This is what we see with cancer every day and have seen for 25 years. At that moment, we knew we had something to offer that could help so many people with the harsh financial reality that often follows a health crisis.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I see heroes everywhere! They are hiding in plain sight and are in every nook and cranny of our society. Look around for the smallest gestures of kindness and consider the ripple effect that has on people.

This is a confusing time and so many people feel lost. They say if you are lost, you can find yourself in service. Simple things like asking someone how they are and truly listen to the answer. You just let someone know they matter, that they are not alone and that you care. You might have just lifted someone’s spirits enough so that they do the same for the next person they talk to. That simple gesture, one that we can all do, will spread like wildfire and have a profound effect on society. You don’t have to do anything dangerous or scary to be a hero to someone, you can literally just take time out of your day to care about them.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

Because I am always focused on the future, and on cancer, my biggest fear right now is what’s on the other side of this shutdown. Every day we read about the devastation that COVID-19 is causing, like loss of life and economic ruin.

But there is so much more happening behind the scenes that people aren’t talking about. And just because it’s not in focus now, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Cancer diagnosis are way down, not because cancer is taking a break, but because it’s being ignored.

Picture a middle school classroom with no teacher. Those kids aren’t sitting idly waiting for a watchdog to maintain a semblance of order, they are wreaking havoc because nobody is watching! Same goes for cancer right now. People aren’t going for regular annual check-ups where their primary care physician would alert them of areas of concern.

They aren’t being seen by a medical professional if they see or feel something suspicious on their own body because doctors are only seeing COVID-19 related illnesses and many are too afraid to even go to a doctor’s office for fear of exposure to the virus.

Also, I was shocked to learn that even if you have cancer, if it’s a slow-growing tumor, your treatment or surgery is considered elective, so you aren’t getting treated. And those who have had cancer, like me, our maintenance appointments are being canceled so we won’t be seeing our oncologists for important follow-ups to make sure cancer is staying at bay. Lastly, many of the oncologists that I work with have switched to telemedicine and share that not being able to physically examine a cancer patient leaves them at the mercy of the patient to share how they are feeling instead of being able to examine them knowing what physical signs to look for.

So to answer your question, what frightens me most right now is what we are not seeing in the cancer space. Catching cancer early has been key in increased survival rates. These missed appointments stopped treatments, and ignored symptoms are going to wreak havoc on the cancer community once we are on the other side of the pandemic.

And since Family Reach is focused on the financial health of cancer patients and their families, knowing there will be a dramatic increase in diagnoses, and many are financially struggling because of COVID-19’s effect on the economy, that combination is going to add to people’s inability to access care and adhere to treatment driving the health disparities divide even wider.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

What gives me hope is the innovation and collaboration that is happening amidst the chaos and uncertainty.

Watching organizations come together knowing we are stronger together and we need each other to survive. Many nonprofits are scaling back or shutting down because their capacity to fundraise right now is so low.

As I mentioned earlier, Family Reach created a collaborative network called the LiFT Network two years ago, for nonprofits who share our mission to financially support cancer patients and their families. We’ve done a significant amount of outreach during COVID-19 to let nonprofits know we are here and want to work together to serve the needs of the cancer community.

We’ve seen an incredible outpouring of willingness to collaborate, problem-solve, and support each other so we can all rise up to meet the deep needs. These partnerships will continue well beyond COVID-19 and are going to unite so many of us so we can be one really loud voice and not only survive, but thrive during a very difficult time. A time when we are needed by the cancer community. It’s great that we can be there for each other so that we can be there for cancer patients and their families in the short and long term.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

They say there are only two emotions: love, and fear, and every other emotion is a derivative of one of these. What inspires me most about the behaviors of people during the pandemic are the countless acts of love.

Just watch an episode of John Krasinksi’s SGN (Some Good News!) to get a solid dose of love! See if you can do it without tearing up by all of the incredible acts of kindness and love. I’m visualizing a segment that featured an elderly man who was lifted up in a bucket truck to the 3rd-floor window of an Alzheimer’s facility so he could comfort his wife by singing to her since she was bedridden and isolated/ Another segment featured a little girl who could only see her dad through a window because he was quarantined for 14 days and then when they reunited she just melted into his chest and sobbed because she was overwhelmed with love and joy. Love inspires me and this pandemic offers us so many examples of how love conquers all and honestly nothing else matters.

What disappoints me most are those acts that literally make you scratch your head to try to understand. But in the end, it comes down to fear. Hoarding supplies or food, wealthy institutions furloughing people with no compensation or benefits even though they have worked for them for many years and have deep financial pockets. We need to take care of each other, not wonder how we are going to get ahead at a time like this.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

Sometimes life feels like a game. Get more, do more, have more, more, more, more. But as the saying goes, ‘it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt’.

This pandemic has caused immeasurable amounts of suffering and damage, and people are getting hurt. As a result, individuals, corporations, and governments are also showing up in tremendous ways. They are getting innovative on how to pivot to help. New Balance making masks, GM making ventilators and philanthropists investing millions in their communities, volunteerism, generosity, and leniency on debt and credit issues. We are proving that we can do better! That we have that ingenuity and capability of making modifications to help people who are suffering.

Now if we can just hold onto that as the pandemic fades away, we will all be better for it and there will be a profound silver lining as a result of this devastating reality we are facing today. So have I reassessed my view of society? Yes, and it’s a good one and we are better than we thought. Let’s keep that trend going!

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

The pandemic has affected every single one of us in one way or another. The glaring difference is how the impact has affected each of us. We see it in cancer too. I’m talking about the Social Determinants of Health. Where you live, your income, your ability to have the luxury of taking time off to care for yourself or a loved one who is sick, all have a direct effect on your ability to survive illness literally and financially. We have a lot of work to do to even the playing field and narrow the health disparities gap.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It feels good. In desperate times, like we are experiencing today, the gravity of the situation is almost unbearable. When you are making a positive impact on the environment or society, you have purpose and hope. You know that you are doing your part to bring light into the darkness and to help propel us forward. That feeling of hope and hopefulness is the only thing that’s getting me out of bed every day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Get still. Give yourself a chance to feel, process those feelings, and consider your role in helping to heal the world.

You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘to find yourself, lose yourself in service’. That has been so true for me and it all started once I allowed myself to be still, not run from hard truths or sad feelings and instead, embrace them and figure out how to use my gifts to help bring about positive change. It’s addictive!

If people are having trouble getting still in the world right now, start with gratitude. Go through a list in your mind, or write it down, of things you are grateful for. Big things, little things, all of it. Watch how your mindset, mood, and outlook changes. There’s a lot to worry about right now, but there’s also a lot to celebrate and be grateful for. What you pay attention to grows. Focus on the good and watch it grow.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oprah Winfrey. Hands down! My hero.

She teaches kindness, self-awareness, acceptance, spiritual growth, and vulnerability.
A guiding light for me in my decision making on a daily basis and the basic foundation on how I work with my team.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram @FamilyReach
Twitter @FamilyReachCEO and @FamilyReach
Facebook FamilyReach

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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