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Iris Waichler: “Don’t put off personal goals until later in life”

While working in the hospital I quickly learned that people in crisis need help and they are not always able to ask for it. They may also be paralyzed or overwhelmed by the crisis and don’t know what to ask for. I wrote my first book, How to Have a Say During Your Hospital Stay, […]

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While working in the hospital I quickly learned that people in crisis need help and they are not always able to ask for it. They may also be paralyzed or overwhelmed by the crisis and don’t know what to ask for. I wrote my first book, How to Have a Say During Your Hospital Stay, when I saw the family of a patient of mine was crying outside his room. He was getting a check up EKG but he was fine. They thought he was dying because the doctor had not taken the time to explain what he was doing or why. I realized that knowledge is power for people in crisis. I also understood that they need to feel they are not alone. With the right information they can advocate for themselves and their loved ones. All three of my books have had an advocacy theme. I share people’s personal stories and my personal stories,. I believe sharing this information and resources helps empower, support, and educate people. My themes have been medical health crisis, infertility, and caregiving. These are all areas where I have personal and professional expertise. The power of words for people in crisis can be a life preserver and that is what my work has been about both in my personal contact with people and my writing. I want to help people feel more comfortable advocating on their own behalf and for those they love. People need to be able to connect with others to share their fears and successes as they work through a medical crisis. That is what I believe my books and articles do. There are tens of millions of people who battle health crisis and my goals are to help them understand how to cope, to help loved ones through it, and find where they can get the help they need to overcome these great life challenges.


As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Iris Waichler.

Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW, has been a licensed clinical social worker and patient advocate for over 35 years. She has done workshops, individual, and group counseling with people experiencing catastrophic illnesses. Ms. Waichler is an award winning author of Riding the Infertility Roller Coaster: A Guide to Educate and Inspire and How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents. Iris has been a freelance writer for 20 years. She has been featured in Parade, Redbook, and Next Avenue Magazines.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was incredibly lucky in that I grew up in a home with loving parents. We always had family living with us including my grandparents, cousins, and other relatives. We doubled our family when I was twelve and my parents adopted my older brother and sister. Our house was always full of people. I didn’t realize it until I wrote Role Reversal but my parents were role models for me. Caregiving and family were the core. My grandparents all died while living with us so I also was exposed to illness and death at a young age. There was a hospital near us and I decided as a teenager I wanted to work there some day. I later became a medical social worker at that hospital. I worked with people with catastrophic, life changing illnesses, like brain trauma, strokes, burns, and amputations. I counseled them and their families. I also covered the emergency room. Looking back these career choices stemmed from my childhood.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I loved the book Little Women and reading about the choices the girls made regarding their lives. Jo was my hero. There was a moment in my life that was life changing. When I was in third grade I was consumed with being a paleontologist. I had a huge role of paper and was drawing all the plants and animals from different prehistoric eras. I loved dinosaurs. My teacher arranged for me to meet the head paleontologist at the Field Museum which is a very prestigious natural history museum in Chicago. The moment came and he shook my hand and literally looked down on me. He told me “Women should not be paleontologists. The work is too hard and they can’t do what is needed physically.” My mom had to hold my dad back because he wanted to hit him. The next day I threw out my time line and my colored pencils and crayons. My parents urged me to follow my dreams and I thought about Jo in Little Women and decided I would create a new dream. I never allowed anyone to tell me I couldn’t do anything again in terms of school or my professional goals. That is why I followed my passion to work at the hospital. I eventually became the Director of Social Work at the the hospital affiliated with mine and trained and supervised social work students so they could follow their dreams.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Early in my career in the 1970’s I worked with families that were accused of child abuse. We were the last stop for them. If our interventions failed their kids were taken away from them. I counseled the parents and we had a person who did community service and an aide to teach parenting skills. We were a great team and had a lot of success. I originally was supposed to work in a specific neighborhood with only 2 families at a time. Our work was very intensive and we could be called at any hour of the day or night when a crisis broke out. We got a referral to work with a family at Cabrini Green which was a famous housing project in Chicago. It was not in the designated area we were supposed to work and we already had 5 families on our caseload. A police officer had just been shot there. I told my supervisor I would like to talk with him more about the referral when I got back from lunch because I was concerned about the safety of my team and wanted to discuss the most effective ways we could help this family. When I got back from lunch there were pink slips on our desks and we were all fired. I was furious because you couldn’t just pull us out without having a team to continue to work with those families and kids. Those kids were at risk and their parents desperately needed our help to succeed and create a safe environment. My team and I decided to sue the agency that had hired us. They had been in the child welfare business for over 100 years. It was a David and Goliath situation. I was fresh out of school as an undergraduate social worker. We were not supposed to even speak to the families again. The lawsuit bought us the time we needed to do the proper final work with the families and we were allowed to stay until a replacement team was found. I learned to fight on behalf of the people I worked with no matter what if it would help and protect them.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

While working in the hospital I quickly learned that people in crisis need help and they are not always able to ask for it. They may also be paralyzed or overwhelmed by the crisis and don’t know what to ask for. I wrote my first book, How to Have a Say During Your Hospital Stay, when I saw the family of a patient of mine was crying outside his room. He was getting a check up EKG but he was fine. They thought he was dying because the doctor had not taken the time to explain what he was doing or why. I realized that knowledge is power for people in crisis. I also understood that they need to feel they are not alone. With the right information they can advocate for themselves and their loved ones. All three of my books have had an advocacy theme. I share people’s personal stories and my personal stories,. I believe sharing this information and resources helps empower, support, and educate people. My themes have been medical health crisis, infertility, and caregiving. These are all areas where I have personal and professional expertise. The power of words for people in crisis can be a life preserver and that is what my work has been about both in my personal contact with people and my writing. I want to help people feel more comfortable advocating on their own behalf and for those they love. People need to be able to connect with others to share their fears and successes as they work through a medical crisis. That is what I believe my books and articles do. There are tens of millions of people who battle health crisis and my goals are to help them understand how to cope, to help loved ones through it, and find where they can get the help they need to overcome these great life challenges.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Role Reversal was a book that was a memoir based on my father’s life and a self help book for readers who are caregivers. It was written in my words and my dad’s which I love. He told a story that shocked me and was a testament to my dad’s character. He served as a soldier in World War II. He was in the army for four years. He was pretty outraged at how ill prepared soldiers were in terms of their training, life experience, and equipment. My father was a sergeant. Out of nowhere one day one of his men attacked him with a knife for no reason. The only reason my dad survived was the other soldiers realized what was happening and pulled their comrade off my dad before he could kill my father. He was thrown in the brig and there was going to be a trial. They did a psychological evaluation of the guy who attacked my dad. They told my father he functioned at the level of an 11 year old. They planned to throw him in jail. My father told his superior officer he didn’t want that. Instead he asked that the man who attacked him get the psychological help that he needed and he not be punished for his actions.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

The story that I shared about being in the hospital and helping the distressed family was my first aha moment. My experience with infertility was powerful and another important aha moment. I had promised myself if my infertility treatment was successful that I would do all I could to help others who were battling infertility. It creates such a devastating medical and emotional crisis and creates upheaval in the lives of men and women that face it. My personal battle against infertility lasted more than 3 years and I suffered multiple miscarriages. On my final try I was successful and had a healthy girl. Initially I did workshops and led groups to counsel and educate people. I volunteered on a crisis line for RESOLVE, a national infertility organization. I wanted to reach more people which is the reason I wrote my book, Riding the Infertility Roller Coaster. I also started being a regular contributor to multiple blogs with infertility as their focus. I later did the same for caregivers.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I was brought to tears from an email I got from a woman in Shri Lanka. She was battling infertility and was unable to speak to anyone about it. She felt alone and isolated and like a social outcast. Infertility was not openly discussed there. She wrote me to thank me for my book, Riding the Infertility Coaster. She told me before reading my book she thought she was the only one who felt as she did. She thought there was something wrong with her because people there did not talk about infertility. It was taboo. She told me she sobbed with relief when she realized what she was feeling was normal and what she experienced was universal. The power of words for people in crisis can be a life preserver and that is what my work has been about both in my personal contact with people and my writing around healthcare issues.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

In terms of infertility we need to make sure that the laws are concurrent with the technology and medicine. Recently a couple in Michigan were forced to adopt their own biological children because the law there does not acknowledge surrogacy. In terms of caregiving, Covid-19 has revealed major gaps in our healthcare system. When the virus separated family from loved ones who needed care it highlighted the lapse in home care services that people desperately needed. Also there should be legislation created beyond the Family Medical Leave Act that offers funding and support services to family members who want or need to be caregivers for their loved ones. Finally, we need to acknowledge that importance and value of essential workers who do take care of loved ones both at home and in assisted living or skilled nursing programs. They need to be paid more fairly for their work.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I would say leadership involves lending your voice and actions on an ongoing basis to a group or a movement in a public forum. We have had several recent examples of leadership. Someone that has inspired me is Ai Jen Poo. She is the leader of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She has also done a lot of work in terms or promoting the rights and significance of caregivers. She is also a labor activist who promotes the dignity, rights, and fairness of domestic workers. Ai Jen Poo is also a voice for our immigrant population who make up a large percentage of domestic workers in the United States. They have helped to keep our country going through the Covid-19 crisis.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Don’t put off personal goals until later in life. I learned an invaluable lesson from my patients early in my career. Many of them told me they had decided to delay personal goals and dreams until they retired. Because of their unexpected illness they were unable to do them. They had a lot of regrets. Their experience taught me not to put off things that I really wanted to do. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, trekked in Nepal, and did a lot of traveling. I tested myself and met incredible people along the way creating life long relationships.

2. Becoming a published author involves a lot more than writing a book. That is the easiest part. I wrote my first book in 1988 and had no experience writing or publishing. I sent it to 5 publishers and got myself a publisher. I falsely assumed it would be easier on my future books. There are more publishing options today. Everything from traditional publishing to self publishing. However, today you have to be actively involved in marketing your book and creating your own brand and platform. I had on the job training for that and took a lot of workshops and classes to learn about it.

3. Death, grief, and loss can bring you to your knees but you can survive and become stronger. I learned this from my hospital patients and from personal experience. The strength and courage they displayed fighting back from the disabilities their medical condition imposed inspired me every day. It was an incredible honor to be a member of a multidisciplinary team who put their skills together to help patients achieve far more ability than they ever imagined when they first came to our rehabilitation unit. I was a caregiver for my parents and helped 2 friends to die with dignity. I had my share of personal grief. Along with the pain of losing someone you love there can be an intimacy, and self reflection. It can be a strengthening of relationships that is powerful and life changing in ways I couldn’t imagine early in my career.

4. Words matter. My work as a social worker involves constant conversations with people. There have been many times when I have had a conversation with a patient, client, or family member and not really thought about it beyond that moment. Later on someone would come back to me to thank me for something I had said telling me how it had made such a difference in their lives. At the time I had no idea it had made such a profound impact on them. It is humbling and powerful when that happens.

5. Having the courage to talk openly about a life changing experience can help you and others. When I was battling infertility it was not really talked about in public. I would sneak out of work to go across the street to call my clinic and speak to my doctor. I didn’t discuss it with my friends or even members of my family. In looking back I made it harder on myself depriving myself of the potential support and compassion of others. That was part of the reason I wrote my book. To let people know it was OK to discuss infertility. I gave them examples of how to begin talking and what to say when asking for help. I love now that celebrities and others are being so open about their experience with infertility. It is all over different media platforms and it continues to help so many people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Fear does not stop death It stops life.

And worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles.

It takes away todays peace.

Laurel A. O’Neil

I think this last couple of years has been very hard for everybody. Covid-19 has changed us all and how we have lived. It has made us stop and re-evaluate our lives. We have had to ask ourselves what and who is important in our lives? I’ve explored what is important to me and how can I put that into practice on a daily basis? It has been a scary time with much uncertainty for many. Fear can immobilize us. I don’t want to feel afraid every day. I want to stay connected with people i care about and bring as much peace as I can into my life and into the world.

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

Two people come to mind for me. One is Ai Jen Poo who I mentioned earlier. I saw her speak a couple of times and have heard her interviewed, and read her book. I think we share similar beliefs about caregiving and what we can learn from our elders. I admire her work and organizational skills and what she has accomplished to date.

The second person is someone I think many people have been captivated by. I would love to sit down and talk with poet Amanda Gorman. I saw Maya Angelou speak a couple of times. Amanda Gorman does remind me of her so much in terms of her talent and the way she carries herself. Her youth, her beauty inside and out, her command of the written and spoken word are incredible. It is all so moving. She seems wise beyond her years and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is at https://iwaichlerwpengine.com/

My Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/RoleReversal1

My Twitter page is https://twitter.com/IrisWaichler

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


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