Assuming the top job in any organization has its challenges — and that’s before taking COVID into account. For ASA President Beverly Philip, MD, FACA, FASA, a healthy sense of adventure helps keep things in perspective. In this Member Spotlight, Dr. Philip shares why she dropped out of high school, her love of world travel, and the life lessons learned from escaping an upside-down kayak.
This interview is an edited transcript of Dr. Philip’s presentation to ASA staff made in January 2021.
Care to share a fun fact about yourself that might surprise us?
Yes, I think there are two big ones. The first thing that most people don't know about me that I'm a high-school dropout. Really! The story goes like this: by 11th grade I realized that I’d be taking mostly advanced-placement classes my senior year. So I thought, “If I'm going to do all college level courses, why don't I just go to college?” I talked to the guidance department and they said no. They thought a final year in high school was important. There was no way they’d sign my college application.
I remember very distinctly walking out into the hall and asking myself, “OK, where can I apply that doesn’t require a guidance department signature on the application?”
I knew I was going to apply to the City University of New York (CUNY) colleges because tuition was almost free. Of the four, only one did not have a written requirement for a guidance department signature on the application. That one accepted me, and I was thrilled. My high school guidance department, on the other hand — I’d never seen people so angry in my entire life. They wouldn’t give me a diploma, so I dropped out and went to college. True story.
The second thing I think most people don’t know about me is that I’m a senior-level ski patroller, an advanced open-water scuba diver, and a certified inline skating instructor. My CV is 90 pages long, and I list those credentials on page two. It’s my personal test if anyone actually opens my CV document, because they likely haven’t if no one mentions those.
Wow, those are some pretty adventurous activities. Is there anything you wouldn’t try?
I can tell you I have no interest in jumping out of airplanes! And no rock climbing. Not enough margin on the risk for me.
In general, though, I don’t see my activities as risky, but rather as activities where risk can be managed. What’s anesthesiology if not a risky situation for your patient, and using your knowledge and skills to control that risk? That's exactly what we do, professionally. You have to assess risk, both broadly and specifically, and plan to mitigate it. In fact, I've noticed that a lot of anesthesiology leaders enjoy these kinds of sports. You can mitigate risk through learning and preparation.
Where I grew up in inner-city New York, I didn’t have access to these activities. I learned all of them as an adult. When I started kayaking, one of the lessons was learning how to get out of a kayak that’s turned upside down. I felt a little scared, intentionally turning over my kayak, but you need to know how. The instructor’s beside you in another kayak. So you do it, and actually, it wasn't bad after all. After a few practices, it’s no big deal. Then you know you can do it if you need to. It's a very controlled kind of risk-taking.
Can you tell us a little more about your personal background and how you’ve gotten to where you are today?
I'm first-generation Jewish American. My parents immigrated here as adults. My father made it out of Poland just months before World War II broke out, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Europe. After the war, he met my mother in New York City. My mother is from Germany, and she spent her teenage years doing slave labor for the Nazis in the Auschwitz concentration camp. She was there with her mother and they survived together. My grandmother died in her 90’s, and I knew her very well.
I grew up in Manhattan. Both my parents worked and we didn't have discretionary income. But on the weekends we would go on these wonderful trips. My father took my sister and me on the subway down to the very southern tip of Manhattan, and we’d go on an “ocean cruise” on the Staten Island Ferry. The three of us would walk back home, talking all the way. It was one of my favorite outings.
My father was really sharp. Although he had not much formal education, he was a brilliant thinker, had a creative imagination, and was amazingly good with people. Adults and children used to gravitate toward him. I have so many wonderful stories.
My mother is still alive. She's 95 years old, lives alone, and manages everything by herself. Her math skills are still better than mine! She's a very strong, determined woman and I’ve learned a lot about success from her. I have a sister who's two years younger — a teacher — and she and I remain very close.
I am public-school educated, start to finish. I attended an exam school in New York called Hunter College High School, and our group of friends is still in touch today. Then CUNY college, then SUNY medical school. So now I’m professor of anaesthesia at Harvard. Recently I received my medical school’s Distinguished Alumna Award. With that, I had the heart-warming opportunity to give a presentation to this generation’s first-generation American medical students, encouraging them that success is truly in their own hands — it’s a matter of perseverance and hard work that anyone can do.
So what lessons did I learn growing up? I take a positive approach to things. Focus on goals. When you're faced with discrimination, faced with obstacles, you find ways past them and just work harder to get wherever you want to go.
What first drew you to anesthesiology?
I sort of stumbled on anesthesiology. It was a very popular elective in my medical school. What I found was that the anesthesiologists were amazing teachers. They were 100% committed to excellence in everything they did. I thought they were real role models — the kind of physician I wanted to be for the rest of my life.
I met my husband in my medical school class and we’re both anesthesiologists. Jim and I were accepted to the residency program at the Brigham in Boston, where we’ve stayed pretty much ever since. At the time I had no intention of pursuing an academic career, let alone organizational leadership. But there were so many interesting things to do that one thing led to another.
I should mention that Jim came to anesthesiology from a totally different direction. He earned a master's degree in electrical engineering before going to medical school. He’s always inventing and has a bunch of patents.
One thing certainly has led to another — you’re now ASA President! Can you be more specific about the path that’s led you here?
There wasn't a particular “a-ha moment.” I've always been interested in getting things done. I realized a long time ago that individuals working as groups can get things done better, and sooner. So I've been interested in developing the skills to facilitate group and organization success. Negotiation is my personal favorite. That’s what led me to my leadership roles, first in ambulatory anesthesia leadership in the U.S. and worldwide. After that, the Massachusetts component society and finally ASA, because I really believe that together we can make things better. What could be more valuable than facilitating the future success of our specialty?
What I love about ASA is the absolute over-the-top commitment of so many of its physician members. Think of our governing body of 400+ plus people in the House of Delegates — and there are another 400 members out there waiting their turn! I find this absolutely amazing, absolutely exhilarating.
After being in line for President, how do you feel about finally getting your turn during COVID?
Yeah, COVID. It's a pain! But you don't get to choose what life gives you. I’ve always looked to define problems as opportunities, not as obstacles. Getting bummed out or worrying about things solves nothing. The better alternative is to look for the positive, decide your goals, and get them done.
I'd rather be talking to members face-to-face, for sure. I miss the travel part of this experience. But in my academic career I think I’ve been to nine-tenths of everywhere worldwide. I love learning and experiencing new things. But stuff like that — it’s the fun icing on the cake, not the core experience.
My goals for ASA this year haven’t changed because of COVID. Key areas of focus are leadership, innovation, and scientific discovery. I also want to help ASA become stronger as an organization, continuing to bring physician members and staff to work together as a team for long-term success.
Beyond that, I think my role as President is to guide and facilitate what ASA members want their goals to be. What I can do best is promote engagement, helping those who may one day want to lead. It’s about developing the leaders of the future.
What’s your definition of a great leader?
Empathy, right off the bat. The capacity for intentional listening to what the other person is trying to tell you. Leadership is about learning how to establish lines of communication. Engage in discussion to find out what people are really trying to tell you — and understand that that may be different from the actual words being said. I think that’s the biggest thing.
I said this before, but I believe our job as leaders is to create the next generation of leaders. For that, you need good listening and empathy.
Speaking of the next generation, do you have a favorite clinical pearl or general life advice that you typically give to residents?
Actually, I have two. First, build your communication skills. Residents take my negotiation courses because they think it’s related to work but, in the end, they always bring up personal issues. The fact is, communication — communicating with other people — is a skill that applies very broadly in life. I wish they taught this in 10th grade!
Second, learn to prioritize. You cannot do 100% of everything. You need to consciously prioritize and re-prioritize depending on where you are in life. Make a list. What are your top five things and how much energy do you want to give for each of them? Life is an endless branching of opportunities, and there will always be other opportunities in the future. Make your life be your choices.
Plan ahead — in part that’s about what you to want to get done, but even more about what you want to work on. Make conscious choices about where you want to spend your energy. You should be re-assessing your priorities in life at least once a year.
Is there anything you'd like to add that we haven't yet touched on?
I have a wonderful family! I had my two boys a year apart soon after I finished my residency.
The elder, Noah, is an associate professor at Brown University and psychiatrist working at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s doing incredible federally-funded research developing non-invasive brain stimulation to help patients overcome PTSD. He’s the current president of his national subspecialty research organization, the Psychiatric Research Society. His wife is a small animal veterinarian in private practice, and they have two kids who are as energetic as the rest of us.
My second son Ben is really creative and thinks about things from a totally different angle. He told us early on that three doctors in the family was enough, so he got a PhD in neurosciences instead. We tease him that it would have been easier to be a physician! He's also a federally-funded researcher, at Washington University in St. Louis. Also a professionally published science fiction writer under the pen name Benjamin C. Kinney. His wife is an amazing woman, too. She’s a rehab-medicine physician, with three master’s degrees and a long track record of NASA-funded space medicine research.
We’re all very close. We get together now on Zoom, but otherwise we’d be out on family trips going skiing and doing other activities. We’re just a very warm family.
Beverly K. Philip, MD, FACA, FASA, is president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). She was elected for a one-year term in October 2020.
Dr. Philip has served ASA in numerous roles, including president-elect and first vice president as well as vice president for scientific affairs. She has also chaired ASA’s Committee on Annual Meeting Oversight, Committee on Quality Management and Departmental Administration, and Committee on Ambulatory Surgical Care. Additionally, Dr. Philip has been a member of several ASA committees, including the Committee on Communications, Committee on Governmental Affairs, Committee on Standards and Practice Parameters, and the Perioperative Surgical Home Steering Committee.