Dr. Steven Sheris of Atlantic Health Medical Group: “Fear can be useful”

I believe there is the spark of a hero in all of us, in everything that we do. There is a time in everyone’s life that God will tap them on the shoulder and ask them to do something extraordinary, something they believe they cannot do, but if they summon the courage and if their […]

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I believe there is the spark of a hero in all of us, in everything that we do. There is a time in everyone’s life that God will tap them on the shoulder and ask them to do something extraordinary, something they believe they cannot do, but if they summon the courage and if their leaders trust them and believe in them, they will succeed.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Steven Sheris of Atlantic Health Medical Group.

Steven Sheris, M.D., FACC, FACP was appointed as the Senior Vice President, Physician Enterprise & President, Atlantic Medical Group in 2016. Atlantic Medical Group is comprised of over 1,000 physicians and advanced practice providers. Prior to his current appointment, Dr. Sheris was the lead cardiologist at Associates in Cardiovascular Disease (an Atlantic Medical Group practice) commencing in 2001. Prior to working in private practice, Dr. Sheris served as a physician in the United States Navy for thirteen years, holding multiple leadership positions and ultimately attaining the rank of Commander.

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 was born in New York City but grew up in New Jersey. I went to high school in Freehold, NJ and then attended college and medical school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. After medical school training I joined the U.S. Navy where I served for 13 years. Much of what I learned about leadership and heroism came from observing those leaders and true heroes.

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 believe there is the spark of a hero in all of us, in everything that we do. There is a time in everyone’s life that God will tap them on the shoulder and ask them to do something extraordinary, something they believe they cannot do, but if they summon the courage and if their leaders trust them and believe in them, they will succeed.

The differentiator is those who see that moment, have courage and the trust of those who work with them. They can achieve the extraordinary and we saw that in the springtime in each of the more than 17,000 people who work for Atlantic Health System.

In April, Atlantic Health System experienced a daily peak of COVID-19 cases of around 900 patients at our facilities with another 200 being cared for remotely at home. Despite the incredible clinical, logistical and emotional effort required to provide high-quality care to every one of those people in our care, our team members rose to the challenge with confidence, professionalism and grace.

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

Fortunately, throughout my career I’ve been put in positions where I’ve been able to influence the emergence of heroes during times of great challenge. Not as much in myself, but in others. What comes to mind is that I’ve been fortunate to be mentored by heroes of both people I’ve worked for and people who worked for me.

When I was a medical officer in the Marines in the run up to the first Gulf War, I saw great acts of heroism by people working for me…my corpsmen. I believe there is the capacity in everyone to be a hero.

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? Examples of Atlantic Health System frontline staff, etc.

It’s about team building, it’s about the hero in all of us and that’s what we saw during the pandemic. So much of what we accomplished was done by individuals acting on instinct and rising to the challenge of what was happening.

In medicine, like in the Marine Corps and in the Navy, it is the ultimate team sport. You can’t go at it alone. It takes a team to take care for patients effectively. Anyone who thinks they can be a hero without the help of others is mistaken.

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 spring was like a medical battlefield for us, rapidly evolving, changing and a minimum of information to act. Our efforts were based on trust and clinical training. To that end, like the Marines, we train every day for years to meet challenges great and small. We tried to create an environment of team-based care. Trust in the team, mentorship and confidence so that when we set up the mission you can let people react to it without managing the details.

The pandemic has been a frightening experience for many people. How do you overcome that fear?

Fear can be useful. It can protect you from hubris and overconfidence. Everyone in the spring was afraid of the unknown. Overcoming the paralysis that can come from too much fear requires a focus on the things you can control while keeping situational awareness on what’s going on around you. Being thirsty for knowledge and data and continuously evolving your plan on the fly, that’s how you manage fear.

What gives you hope for the future? What’s a big challenge?

Be constantly mindful of what we were able to achieve during the pandemic and the capacity you have to do incredible things and keep that with you for the rest of your life.

We have created a culture at Atlantic Health System that is strong and enduring, and that commitment to each other helped us unify during times of great challenge. But I worry that our broader society, which came together in the spring to flatten the curve of COVID cases, could snap back into a pre-pandemic mindset where more parochial interests ruled the day. We need to remember how much we have done collectively and use that as a buoy forward through the troubling times we face as a country.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic?

I think there was a renewed appreciation of health care workers and the outpouring of support from our communities helped sustain us and helped contribute to the team being able to achieve what they did. Donations of food, personal protective equipment and supplies illustrated how much value our communities place upon our team members and the services we provide.

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

COVID was the great equalizer throughout our communities — no one was immune to it. And it took a unified response to push back against the surge we saw in the spring and that’s what it will take to get this pandemic under control and keep it that way. The health system didn’t suppress COVID transmission — it was through the actions of our entire area to follow the public health recommendations.

This is a moment in time when we have an opportunity to act and change history rather than observe it. For example, health inequity and the disproportionate effects on different communities is a corrosive but slow-moving process over time. We see with COVID how much those communities can be impacted, and conversely, we now see with the vaccination process, we have an opportunity to act in an intentional way to alter the trajectory of illness in people who have been disadvantaged. That’s what’s different now. It’s a tangible and perceptible opportunity.

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 seems to me that there’s a sense in young people that the opportunity to be a hero is inaccessible to them. But real differences are made by the cumulative small acts of heroes every day.

If you look at the role hundreds of volunteers are playing at vaccine mega sites across New Jersey, including ours in Rockaway, hundreds of young people are stepping up and playing a part and you hear stories about how small acts play a tremendous difference for people who feel scared and vulnerable. For example, I have heard over and over again from people who have been vaccinated, that the actions of the greeters and people in the observation areas make a huge impact just by saying “congratulations” to patients after the vaccination. Cumulatively these little messages of hope from these young people are helping change the perception of government, society and bureaucracy. In the past perhaps those institutions had failed them in some way. Now they are coming together to help them. Those people leaving the vaccination center leave with a smile and a sense of optimism. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to provide people with that feeling. That’s the result of the inherent goodness in people and it’s important to recognize that and celebrate that.

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. 🙂

I am going to pick someone whose work I’ve been reading frequently, but who’s recent passing means I’m taking a slightly different approach to your question — Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a member of the British House of Lords and Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in the United Kingdom.

His perspective on morality, ethics and integrity and the value of introspection — how making small changes in yourself — can lead to tremendous growth.

His writings reflect the importance of thinking about how the things you say and do can impact others around you and to me he is a powerful source of inspiration not just for Jews, but for those who view themselves as moral beings who are centered, a valuable message in today’s times.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can learn more about Atlantic Health System at www.atlantichealth.org.

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

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