Our Finest Hour

Date Published: April 10, 2020

What can former POWs, special forces instructors, and resilient civilians teach us about coping with the historic resilience challenge that is the COVID-19 pandemic? To find out, we spoke with Dennis Charney, MD, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and President of Academic Affairs for the Mount Sinai Health System. Dr. Charney is helping lead Mount Sinai’s fight against the pandemic. But he’s also a world-leading expert on resilience. Dr. Charney is co-author of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, the culmination of almost 20 years of research. In this interview, he describes strategies for weathering the challenge of a lifetime and bouncing back stronger than before.

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Dennis Charney: 00:00
Our doctors and our nurses and others are extremely well-trained, and because of that training it's important, and they do have, a sense of optimism that they are up to the task and that ultimately we will prevail. And I think they will look back upon this time and place as being their finest hour.

Host: 00:29
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Each episode we bring you insights on how to weather adversity from resilient people and experts who study resilience. We're continuing our series on coping during the coronavirus pandemic with an interview with Dr. Dennis Charney. Dr. Charney might be the perfect person to talk to right now. As Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, he's helping lead our efforts to fight COVID-19 here in New York City. But he's also an expert on resilience. Dr. Charney is co-author of "Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges." The book is the culmination of almost 20 years of work treating and studying trauma survivors. It describes 10 coping strategies that anybody can use to bounce back from adversity—strategies such as embracing optimism, facing fears, and looking to role models. Dr. Charney's work has been the backbone of this podcast from the very beginning, and we're so glad to have him back during this historic resilience challenge. Dr. Charney, welcome back to Road to Resilience. Thank you so much for taking the time to be on the show.

Dr. Dennis Charney: 01:37
I'm happy to be back. 

Host: 01:39
So we're here in New York City and as we speak, we are at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. And you have a front-row seat to how we're responding both as a city and as a health system. I imagine you're coping with a lot right now, starting with stress. Can you just list off some of the things that you're coping with? 

Dr. Dennis Charney: 01:58
Yeah, actually we say it's like a war. We're fighting this invisible enemy, the virus. I am one of the generals, but it's more stressful to be soldiers on the front line, which is what our staff are doing. I mean the nurses and the physicians and all the other support staff. And so they're my focus. And as long as I feel I'm doing a good job for them and ultimately a good job for the patients that are coming in, I feel less stress.

Host: 02:33
How both are you coping personally, but also to your point, how are others coping around you? What sorts of things are you seeing? 

Dr. Dennis Charney: 02:41
I'm seeing a lot of bravery and a lot of courage on the part of our staff. And one of the researchers Ann Masten developed a term "ordinary magic," in which people that are, quote, "ordinary" do extraordinary in times of adversity. And that's what I'm seeing here at our institution every day, every hour, where our doctors and our nurses and others are just performing extraordinarily in the face of adversity. Because these are sick patients who have an infectious disease that they could be at risk of contracting themselves. 

Host: 03:23
You and Dr. Southwick, Steven Southwick, wrote a book called, "Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges." And in the book you talk about 10 resilience factors, or coping strategies. They are things like optimism and social support. Which of those do you feel are most important right now for listeners coping with the effects of the pandemic? 

Dr. Dennis Charney: 03:42
There are a couple of them that are very important. One is a positive sense of optimism, which is not easy in these times, but our doctors and our nurses and others are extremely well-trained, and because of that training it's important, and they do, have a sense of optimism that they're up to the task and that ultimately we will prevail. That this will end at some point, and we will get back to normal activities. And I think they will look back upon this time and place as being, as Winston Churchill said, their finest hour. That when they were challenged, they were up to the challenge, did spectacular work. So that sense of positivity and optimism is very important at this time. Secondly, I would say support is very important. You have to function as a team now. You've got to be able to rely on each other 100 percent to take care of the patients that we're responsible for. So that teamwork and that support and feeling like you're brothers and sisters working together is extremely important during these times. There's also a sense of a moral compass, a sense of purpose. And I've heard this a lot from our staff and that is—this is what they are trained to do. This is why they became a nurse or they became a physician. And a lot of them have the attitude, "If not us, who? Who's gonna do it?" And they say, "We're gonna do it." So those are elements that are important right now.

Host: 05:36
I love the Churchill quote about the finest hour, and it's related to something I've been interested in, which is how we turn crises into meaning and purpose and growth. I think that's just one silver lining right now in a lot of bleakness. And so I'm really glad you brought that up, and I'm wondering if you have any other thoughts on how we turn this pandemic into personal growth and greater purpose?

Dr. Dennis Charney: 05:58
These are tough times and many, many of us are going to have other tough times in our life. Different kinds of tough times, different kinds of challenges. But a silver lining in providing leadership and great front-line care will be when we're facing other challenges down the line, we'll look back and say, "If I could overcome this. If I could win the fight against COVID-19. I could deal with any challenge going forward." So it's that kind of confidence and that kind of experience that will stand many of them in very good stead for the rest of their life. It's an experience they will never forget.

Host: 06:42
Are there any experiences from your life that you're thinking of now to draw the same inspiration? In the sense that, "I've been through that. I survived that. I overcame that. And I can overcome this." Are you thinking that way? 

Dr. Dennis Charney: 06:56
I'm thinking that I'm well prepared for this time and place. That I've had many professional leadership opportunities and experiences that prepare me for this right now. And I have had personal experiences that also prepare me, like when I was the victim of a violent crime. I was hit with a shotgun by a disgruntled former employee. I went through that. Survived, thrived, eventually. I look upon that experience as giving me confidence to deal with anything that we're dealing with right now.

Host: 07:35
A question I've been wondering about is where's the line right now between reasonable and unreasonable anxiety? So on an individual level, which measures are warranted, protective measures, and which kind of crossed the line into panic? 

Dr. Dennis Charney: 07:48
It is normal right now when you're in the midst of providing care for these very sick patients where there is some personal risk, because it's an infectious agent, to experience a fear. That's normal. It's normal to experience anxiety. And what you can do is, in a sense, utilize those emotions to perform optimally. So if you're feeling anxiety and fear, it will make you more careful in how you perform the tasks associated with taking care of the patient. However, when it becomes too severe, and it impairs your ability to perform appropriately and in an excellent manner, then you need to take a timeout and essentially let somebody else take their turn. You can get support so that when the time comes for you to then go back into the fray, you're prepared again. So you don't want the anxiety and the fear to get to the point that it impairs your performance.

Host: 08:57
And I should mention that facing your fears is one of the resilience factors in your book. 

Dr. Dennis Charney: 09:00
Right, that's true. 

Host: 09:02
From the point of view, so I'm just imagining—

Dr. Dennis Charney: 09:05
And it's normal. Like I said, it's normal. So when we interviewed individuals for our book like Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, where they're faced with very dangerous situations, and we asked them, "Did you feel fear?" They said, "Yes. We're not fearless. We utilize fear, because it's a normal emotion, to perform our task." And the same is true, I think, in terms of what we're dealing with right now. Fear and anxiety is normal. You utilize those emotions to perform your task in an outstanding manner. 

Host: 09:42
So Dr. Charney, I know you are a father, you're also a grandfather. And I'm wondering what sorts of advice you're giving to your grandkids right now.

Dr. Dennis Charney: 09:53
So it depends on the age of your grandchild. I have a couple of grandchildren who are seven, five, and four, who can comprehend the situation to a large degree, because they do wonder why they can't go outside beyond the local parts of their, where they live. And so my children, the parents of my grandchildren, have basically told him there's a virus, there's a sickness that we have to avoid for a period of time, but everything's gonna be fine. It's gonna pass. We're gonna be good. So I think kids at that age and, of course, older can handle the truth. But you give them at the same time a sense of optimism that they're being taken care of. This will pass, you know, don't worry. So you want to give them a reality, but also confidence. 

Host: 10:49
Fantastic. Dr. Charney, thank you so much for taking a moment to speak with us. We really appreciate it.

Dr. Dennis Charney: 10:54
Yeah, sure. Take care. 

Host: 10:58
Dr. Dennis Charney is Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. We're a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. The podcast is produced by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson, and me, Jon Earle. Lucia Lee is our executive producer. If you'd like to donate to support Mount Sinai's COVID-19 efforts, please follow the link in the show notes. Your donations help us continue to save lives. Thank you. And thank you so much for listening. We'll be back soon with more episodes and until then, stay safe and be well.