David DeStefano: “Work is hard but rewarding”

I would tell someone that a life of service, a life dedicated to making a positive impact is the best way to live your life. I would tell them that a meaningful job means you don’t work a day in your life. I would tell them that when you work to help others, it comes […]

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I would tell someone that a life of service, a life dedicated to making a positive impact is the best way to live your life. I would tell them that a meaningful job means you don’t work a day in your life. I would tell them that when you work to help others, it comes back to you in other good things.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing David DeStefano.

David DeStefano is the President & CEO of We Are Sharing Hope SC, South Carolina’s organ and tissue procurement organization. Earlier in his career, he served on the executive leadership teams at the Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC) in Washington, D.C.; LifeSharing in San Diego; and as the Executive Director at TransLife in Orlando, Florida.

DeStefano’s two decades of experience in the organ and tissue recovery field serve him and his team well; in each of his years as CEO, We Are Sharing Hope SC has facilitated donation for more organ donor heroes than ever before.

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?

Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to join you today.

I grew up near Boston Massachusetts, where I spent most to the time cheering for the Boston Red Sox (but before they started winning). I moved to Washington, DC after graduation where I started my journey in organ and tissue donation. I started working for the Washington Regional Transplant Community, the Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) serving the Washington, DC area in 1995. I was very fortunate to work with WRTC’s CEO — Lori Brigham — who helped mentor me in leading an organization dedicated to organ and tissue donation.

Washington, DC is also very special to me because it is where I met my amazing wife, Elizabeth, who also works supporting the mission of organ and tissue donation.

I am extremely fortunate to have landed in South Carolina and work with a singularly amazing group of leaders at We Are Sharing Hope SC. My family and I have met so many incredible people here and are in awe of the beauty that the state of South Carolina represents.

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?

A book that had a particular impact on me was The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. I was struck by how unfocused and challenged leadership can really damage and distract from any mission. Once a team is distracted, then the mission fails.

When you are responsible for such a valuable mission as organ and tissue donation, it is important that we remain steady and focused on our mission and our staff. If we are adequately supporting our staff, then our staff can best support our community in leaving a legacy for our patients and bring life to those waiting for their second chance.

The story was impactful because it taught me that when you make your leadership responsibilities about you, then you cannot be effective. The teams who engage in this mission need leadership that is positive, collaborative and supportive. We aren’t always perfect in that regard but we are working hard to be better for our teams and our community.

In this work, we are constantly reminded that the job is bigger that ourselves. This leadership work is not about us, it is about service. We are here to serve our staff and our community at large

The work is hard but rewarding. I am often reminded that this work is “to passionately advocate for people we do not know, to save the lives of people we will not meet.” It’s a unique role but we are thankful to play a small part in this precious gift.

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

My father gave me a book when I graduated from College called Thoughts on the Business of Life by Malcom Forbes. It was a book of quotes that can be applied to business situations but also reflect on how to be successful in life. I have always been impacted by many of the quotes in this book.

One that has always resonated with me it ‘What you permit, you promote.’ It speaks to the idea that what we allow — in business or in life — we are actually promoting. If we allow a certain treatment, we are saying that we will accept more of it. In business, if we allow a certain level or performance or behaviors, then we are actually and inadvertently “promoting” that performance and those behaviors. We need to always identify what we will permit in our lives and address what we will not allow to exist. Over time, that sets the standard of one’s life and the standards within and organization.

As a companion to that lesson, I always include a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt when she said that “No One Can Make You Feel Inferior without Your Consent.” This was important because it reminds us that as we navigate this business of life, we must remember that we are in control of how we feel. No one can make us act or feel a certain way without our consent. This mission of organ and tissue donation is about advocacy, grief, compassion and effort. There are moments of great joy and celebration and moments of tremendous conflict and heartache. To be the best we can in this work, we need to stay above the challenge and focus on our donor patients and their families, honor their legacy and stay true to the lives that they can save. Anything else is a just a distraction.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

  • A hero is someone who exhibits inspirational traits without being cognizant of them. Organ and tissue donors are heroes because they offer second chances to those in need and they do so altruistically, never able to be recognized for the gift they’ve given others. In that same sense of the word, the staff at We Are Sharing Hope SC are heroes because they continue to serve the people of South Carolina on the front lines of the COVID-19 because they know our donor families and transplant recipients are depending on them. They do so each and every day.
  • Heroes are by nature unassuming and dedicated to service. In our experience, organ and tissue donor heroes come from all walks of life. They do not share common backgrounds or experiences but in death they share a common trait — they have made the heroic decision to help others.

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

  • Making Decisions and taking actions that serve others and not necessarily yourself. When you are driven to lead a life of service and commit to being a part of something bigger than yourself as an individual, you are a hero. You are making selfless decisions and inspiring others to do the same.
  • Showing compassion and grace in all interactions. We live in a world that has been twist turned upside down and it’s up to us to extend compassion and grace with those we encounter. People are navigating situations they never thought they’d see in their lifetime and they may not have the support systems in place that they’ve depended on in the past.
  • Dig in when the work gets hard. This is one of the ways I feel the staff at We Are Sharing Hope SC are heroes. When COVID-19 first began impacting our ability to facilitate the gift of life, the teams thought outside of the box and navigated through ways to continue remaining mission-focused. They never stepped back from the work in front of them, all the while juggling home schooling, stay at home mandates and personal unknowns. They knew people depended on them and continued to provide care to our precious families and second chances to those in need.
  • Be comfortable in the uncomfortable. Heroes challenge themselves and create situations that may push their comfort level but may also improve the situation of those around them. COVID-19 has challenged all of us in
  • Heroes carry themselves with a sense of humbleness and humility. Being heroic is something that comes from a need that has been defined and this goes back to doing something for the greater good, even if it doesn’t specifically benefit you.

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?

I’m not fully convinced heroes set out to be heroes. I believe there are certain characteristics and situational circumstances that amplify human behavior and elevate some to “act heroically.”

A common characteristic of individuals who act heroically is service, There are those who have physical strength, intellectual capabilities and financial success. But it is those who have a desire to serve that become heroes.

These are the individuals that become today’s heroes. These are individuals that quietly choose to engage, to lean in, to help when others cannot. They are not early to recognize in daily life but often become very visible during a crisis.

During this pandemic, our donor patients and their families acted heroically. They chose to help others through hurdles and challenges that were unprecedented. They acted heroically.

As is often discussed, our healthcare workers — including our organ and tissue donation professionals — chose to continue to work, to help, to serve during this pandemic. They chose to engage in our mission, even at some risk to themselves, in order to help patients and their families leave a lasting legacy and also so that others may live. These professionals were and continue to be the heroes of COVID-19.

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 work at We Are Sharing Hope SC is essential and critical. Our teams do not have the luxury of not engaging in our mission. Our teams are unique and elite and this work can’t be done by others. If they are not working, then legacies are left unrealized and lives are lost.

Our leadership team recognized very early in the pandemic that we needed to plan, to prepare and to position the organization to function during this event. We knew lives would be lost to this virus, but we also knew that lives would be lost without the gift of life. We chose to help those we could, while working to protect our teams engaged in this mission.

In a crisis, it is often said that an organization will lose a percentage of their workforce to fear and anxiety. We did not have one member of our team stand back, give up or give in. The entire team responded and with the amazing help of our hospital partners, we were able to continue to honor the donation legacies and save lives.

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

My heroes have always been the donor patients and their families. I have always been inspired by watching these individuals chose to help others during tragic loss and at the most difficult times of their lives. These individuals chose to set aside their own grief and pain to make sure another family doesn’t suffer the same loss. This has always driven me to continue to help others in this amazing mission.

Another hero to me is my wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth has amazing compassion, unequalled intelligence and unparalleled strength. Elizabeth has been involved in organ and tissue donation as long as I have and — in fact — that is how we met. I have watched her work tirelessly to help families navigate the donation process. She has been tenacious in ensuring that every legacy is considered and every life that can be saved, is saved. I have watched her care for our children and support me as I work to support donation in South Carolina — all while she continues to coach and mentor professionals in our community about the best way to care for and communicate with families during their donation journey.

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

I think I am most concerned about the uncertainty that surrounds this pandemic.

It is difficult to plan and to adjust with this much uncertainty. Whether it is uncertainty in the data, the virus projections or the expectations surrounding this pandemic, it all creates noise that causes confusion for all of us.

Another concern is the uncertainty once infected. As you know, this virus affects different people differently. For some, it’s like a cold, for others a life altering or even ending ailment. That variability is the scariest thing about this pandemic for me. It makes it difficult to find the best way to protect our SHSC staff and/or to protect our families.

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

I have always had great faith in humanity and the strength and goodness of the human condition. I am confident that once this is over and the pandemic is behind us, we will be stronger together.

We will all have shared this experience as a community, as a society and as a global population. We will have our own shared experience that will help us feel closer and more connected to one another.

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

Like many of you, I have been inspired by the strength, the courage and the dedication of our healthcare workers and first responders. It has been humbling to watch these individuals fight through the fear and anxiety of this pandemic to choose to help others. That is the one constant, the one absolute of this pandemic. This heroic behavior by these individuals among us continues today and has been a true inspiration.

I am disappointment by any rhetoric that makes this pandemic anything other than a deadly virus that infects us all. COVID-19 is a shared threat that should connect us and unite us in our battle to end it. There is no room for judgement or animosity in this fight. This pandemic requires that we support each other through it. Anything else is a noisy distraction.

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

Actually, it has not, my view of the world and our society remains unchanged. I believe that people are good and this pandemic has shown that throughout. There are pockets of discord but I do not believe that discontent is where most of us live.

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

If anything, I think this pandemic has taught us how important it is to slow down a bit, to appreciate what we have and enjoy each other a bit more. Being forced to stay apart is a good way to teach us how nice it is to be together.

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 comes back to you — I would tell someone that a life of service, a life dedicated to making a positive impact is the best way to live your life. I would tell them that a meaningful job means you don’t work a day in your life. I would tell them that when you work to help others, it comes back to you in other good things.

Don’t get distracted by what a job pays you, focus on what a job gives you.

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. 🙂

If I could start a movement that could benefit the greatest number of people, I think that movement would revolve around Self-Reliance. I think the most important thing an individual can have is independence and the ability to live unencumbered.

The ability for an individual to be able to be self-reliant is the truest form of freedom and lets one live a life that he/she chooses and without restrictions or limits.

Self-Reliance is not isolation but instead a life where you chose your own path, your own partner and your own destination.

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