Dr. Phil: It's important for us to get out of our reactive mode, and become proactive. We stay in fight/flight, which is a not good condition to be in, right? Because that's where stress and burnout and everything else comes from. We want to get out of that and into a productive and proactive mode, doing the things that we do. Again, building those new routines, recognizing that we are going to emerge into a new normal.
Hi, this is Dan Baum, host of Redefine U. Thanks for joining us as we continue our series exploring how we redefine in the face of a pandemic.
Today, we’re joined by a familiar voice from season one.
Phil Terry-Smith serves our community in a number of roles. He’s a sociologist, an assistant dean and an officer with the Maryland Defense Force. Dr. Phil is here to tell us about his experiences during some of our nation’s most challenges crises, and how we can find balance between being informed and prepared, and caring for ourselves to move forward in a world battling a pandemic.
Dr. Phil: Today, we were talking with someone who joined us last season, Dr. Phil Terry Smith. Welcome back, Dr. Phil.
Dr. Phil: Hey Dan, how are you?
Dan: I'm doing okay. It's always a pleasure to speak with you. It's nice to connect despite the distance, the wonders of modern technology.
Dr. Phil: Indeed, technology has been our saving grace here the last couple of weeks.
Dan: It certainly has. How are you holding up during this pandemic?
Dr. Phil: I'm doing fairly well. On double duty with my responsibilities at the college and my responsibilities with the military department, but you know, we're doing okay.
Dan: That's good. So, we know you're an assistant dean in the School of Liberal Arts, but you're also a colonel in the Maryland Defense Force. Can you tell me a little bit about your role with the Maryland Defense Force?
Dr. Phil: Sure. Currently I'm the adjutant, really. I'm the assistant chief of staff for personnel and administration with the Maryland Defense Force. MDDF, Maryland Defense Force is a branch of Maryland Military Department. We stand alongside the Army and Air National Guard as the state guard and the Maryland emergency management agency.
Dan: So during this pandemic, what has been your primary focus?
Dr. Phil: Several things, really. At that level, I'm just assuring that our unit is standing in support of the National Guard as the National Guard supports the Department of Health and carries out the governor's orders. We are an all volunteer branch that can be activated by the governor as he has done with this incident. So we have volunteers that are supporting the deployment of National Guard units, helping screen them in, in-process them, and we're gearing up to do likewise with healthcare providers.
Dan: So does that mean healthcare providers who can volunteer, is that what you're referring to?
Dr. Phil: That's correct. Maryland has a Medical Reserve Corps and you can actually sign up through Maryland Responds, and in fact, any of our faculty or students that are providers at whatever their level of licensure or experience are can probably sign up to assist if they are available. And again, that’s with Maryland Responds, a link off of the Maryland Department of Health website. So the governor and deputy secretary of health put out a call earlier this week, I believe it was at their Wednesday press conference, asking for any medical providers that had time and energy and a willingness to assist in this crisis to contact Maryland Responds.
Dan: Well, I know this is a very busy time. You're juggling a lot, but you also bring many perspectives. So what are you seeing right now from your experience in many roles?
Dr. Phil: You know, the sort of a discordant part of this for me is that this isn't a new crisis. I was on some of the task force that worked on the initial pandemic influenza response when H1N1, when the swine flu virtually was making its way across the continent many years ago, 2002, 2005. The dates elude me a bit. We did drills and lots of exercises and things to prepare for that and we did all the modeling that you see Dr. Fauci speaking of when he does the national press conferences. So these crises that come up every so often, we've had many over the years. This is certainly the largest one. There are predictable trends and there are patterns that you can watch and observe and there are tried and true responses which have to be adjusted for each event and each incident. What we're watching our governor do, it's exactly by the playbook. He is following the playbook to the T in terms of of making sure that Marylanders are as safe as possible in this crisis.
Dan: That's good to hear because it certainly seems that way from the outside looking in, but it's good to hear that that's how you see it from the inside. So you mentioned it's not your first experience, it's not the first time you've been called to serve. Following the attacks on 9/11 you worked at Ground Zero, is that right?
Dr. Phil: That's correct. I worked at both the Pentagon and Ground Zero. I started at the Pentagon the second day, September 12, and I was there providing mental health support and supervision for a month and then moved up to New York to do the same thing, supervising mental health support for first responders at respite centers that were on both sides of the a World Trade Center site.
Dan: And what was that experience like?
Dr. Phil: Traumatic to say the least. It was busy. I was happy to be able to assist. I was doing that as a volunteer with the American Red Cross at the time and it was nice to be able to provide support and comfort to folks that both the families that had lost loved ones and to military members, including some of the top generals at the Pentagon who were responding and had also lost staff members and folks on their team.
The memorial services had happened at both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. It was nice to be able to be part of the emotional support team for both the providers that were there and the family members that came in. Yeah. So it was trying times and under very trying circumstances, but I was happy to be able to do my part.
Dan: Sure. That's amazing. So for different reasons, these are trying times. Does the Maryland Defense Force, is that part of what you do as well is providing that mental health for workers or perhaps even families who have loved ones who are affected by the virus? Is that part of it?
Dr. Phil: That's actually what got me involved with the Defense Force was bringing that expertise and my emergency response expertise to the table. That's not my role now. I'm not with the medical and behavioral health unit anymore. I'm in the command structure now being an assistant to the general, as it were, and to the general's chief of staff. But those skills come rushing back. They're never far from my pocket. And being responsible for personnel administration, those skills come in very handy in helping my team and the entire Defense Force and National Guard members that I'm in contact with cope well with this crisis.
Dan: So your experience during 9/11, what were some of the lessons learned that might apply to this current situation?
Dr. Phil: Actually I jotted down some notes on that earlier because it's important that we understand this is a quiet, strange and invisible challenge for us all, right? It's not something that's right immediately in our faces here in Maryland yet. And I'm saying that intentionally because we're fully expecting that we're going to have much more impact in the state in the days and unfortunately months ahead. So all of those responses that we would typically get in a crisis, one that we see and can feel as viscerally as we did with 9/11, they're still there for all of us, but they're lingering in the background. We're not seeing, I'll use the phrase shock and awe, unless we're watching daily news feeds and we're seeing what's happening in New York or we're seeing what happened in Italy and we haven't had that personal touch here in Maryland yet for most of us.
Dr. Phil: That will trigger an entire different set of responses for us. I've likened this to a flood like the Midwest floods every spring and we know it's coming and you see the water rising and you do everything you can to prevent, and it doesn't really strike you until you're two feet deep in water and you realize that it has, in fact, impacted you. And this is sort of a slow rising flood in that regard. And my caution to folks is that we be mindful that there is more to come with this and that we need to be taking care of ourselves as we move through this process.
Dan: Yeah. For most of us who haven't experienced a flood as you're describing, that analogy is pretty powerful. And so it makes me think if we're playing by the playbook, what does that really mean? Is that it just, it spreads it out longer? I think that's kind of the way I'm interpreting it, is that we're trying to flatten the curve. So we still may see high numbers, but they're spread out over time. What is playing by the playbook and preparing for the flood really mean or look like?
Dr. Phil: It's all about capacity. And if we stick with the flood analogy, if we know that a significant rainfall or snow melt is coming, we'll do things like open up the dams so that the water starts to flow out and the reservoirs don't overflow. That's exactly what flattening the curve is, right? We are spreading out the impact on our healthcare system. If you know that we only have X number of hospital beds and in those hospitals, X number of ICU beds and X number of functioning ventilators and X number of staff, if that becomes overwhelmed, if it floods too quickly, the system can't compensate and can't adjust itself. But if we slow that down to a trickle and we slow down the flow and increase capacity, now we've mitigated a crisis. We're still busy and it's still a crisis and folks are still becoming ill. Some unfortunately will still perish, but it's not a surge that completely overwhelms the system and then shuts it down.
Dan: And you said in preparing for it, we have to take care of ourselves. So how do you do that? What are you focusing on personally?
Dr. Phil: A couple of things. All of our routines have been disrupted and we're all also trying to continue to function in circumstances that are very different and very challenging. Everyone's had to learn new technology literally in days, if not in minutes.
Dr. Phil: Right? Everyone's had to figure out whether or not their internet connection works and we've all discovered just how slow our bandwidth is. Right? Because now that there are more than one person in the house that's online. I've had Zoom conferences where folks sitting out in their car simply because they could get a signal off the cell tower and couldn't in their home because their three kids and their spouse was home. Right? So maintaining our proper rest, eating well, getting up and exercising. We're seeing social distance and stay home. But the governor's also said take a walk. Just don't walk in groups of 10 and be mindful and pass around folks and give a little bit extra space so that we can continue to decrease the curve.
But really taking care of ourselves and establishing routines. What is the new routine for you? And recognizing that it's not normal. I've got something up on my screen here that says you are not working from home, you are at home during a crisis trying to work. It's a different perspective.
Dan: Yeah. That actually helped a lot.
Dr. Phil: It's a different perspective. So making sure that we're maintaining our own physical health, our spiritual health, our emotional health, our mental health, keeping a good routine for our families and kids. Recognizing that there is an impact with everyone being in the house. This is unusual. It's not something that we all typically do anymore. And all of that has an impact on us.
Dan: I'm hearing in that balance is what I'm sensing from what you're saying, is trying to find balance.
Dr. Phil: Absolutely. Absolutely. Also to be mindful that in our setting in the college, there are lots of things that we want to accomplish as faculty members. We have information we want to share with our students and we're anxious and excited and really thrilled to get that information out. And in 15 weeks we can do it in eight weeks we can do it. That's shifted a little bit this semester, huh? Right? We you don't have that time. And so we won't do ourselves, any of us, students, faculty, staff, we won't do ourselves any good by trying to cram in all we used to do in the time we have. It's not going to happen. So relaxing and being mindful and balancing what's important, what's really important now, and that's what we focus on. And the most important thing is taking care of ourselves.
Dan: We've talked to professor Sarah Meisler last time and she said something to the effect of when so much is stripped away, you need to focus on what's most important. When you hear that, what's most important to you?
Dr. Phil: Wow. What's most important to me is maintaining a sense of balance. And again, I'm going to go back to self care, right? How do we balance out the need? I'm, I'm doing military work and I'm doing college work. I've got three screens in front of me and I'm bouncing back between the screens and I've got Zoom and Skype and I don't even know all the applications we're using at this point in time. But at some point my computer says, "Dude, what are you doing? Close a tab. I can't handle anymore."
Dan:You computer needs balance.
Dr. Phil: Right, right? My computer freezes, which reminds me, dude, you're doing too much. Slow down. Slow down. And so I think Sarah was correct. We need to find that nice balance. I've talked about work life balance before on campus and certainly with my team in the social sciences division. We're all eager to do our work and I know I personally love my work and I want to give my absolute best to it, but I also need to take Phil time. I need to take time out to just do nothing. And honestly, in about another hour and a half, that's what I'm going to do. Nothing.
Dan: Yeah. I can totally related to that.
Dr. Phil: Just relax and chill and turn off the phone and probably not even going to watch TV. I don't watch the news all the time. I recommend that we get our little news bite in the morning or read our paper in the morning and then leave that alone. Right? So we're not being inundated all the time with this information. But being very mindful of what our own personal needs are, what our family needs are, being mindful of work life balance, setting a routine. Our normal work hours for those of us from staff to the college is between like 8 and 8:30 and 4 and 4:30 with variants in there, but eight hours. And in that time we take a lunch break, I hope, and in that time we stand up and walk around and take a restroom break. We need to do the same thing during this time. Don't sit at your computer for eight straight hours. It's not healthy. Get up, walk around, exercise.
Dan: Well, one thing I can relate to all of that, but in particular the inundated with information and turning off the news. Being in communications, I'm attuned to all that on a regular basis, but I think you're even so much more informed than I am. So how does your knowledge and experience help you face the current challenges knowing all the information that you have at your fingertips?
Dr. Phil: Yeah. The interesting thing is we establish something in the military called a battle rhythm, and all of those that are veterans would understand that. It's what is our daily rhythm, our daily flow. So there's a call in the morning and then there's in the afternoon, we call a sync call, and then there's a commander's update briefing in the evening. Right? And that's it. And in between, we get that news bite in the morning, we find out what happened overnight and what we need to focus on, on the day. We check in mid-day to make sure everything is in sync and moving in the correct direction. And then we brief the generals in the afternoon, right before the evening about what happened during the day and what we have to do next. And then you take a break, right? You're allowing yourself time to process.
Dr. Phil: So I would say the same thing around the news cycle. Alexa gives me news in the morning and then I chill for the rest of the afternoon and then I may check back in again in the evening. Like the governor does a press conference. I'll tune in on that and listen to the press conference and then tap in and see what the briefing documents say. And then I'll check in a little bit in the evening and then I turn off the news and I listen to music and enjoy music. And I would suggest others do likewise, that you give yourself a morning briefing and then don't look at it again because not much is going to change throughout the day.
Dan: Yeah. That's helpful. I think I need to stick to that routine myself.
Dr. Phil: Yeah. As a communications guy, that's tough, right? Because your life energy comes from gathering information and processing and disseminating information. But it's important to have kind of a break in that cycle.
Dan: And there's this pull to want to keep checking. And I think everybody is experiencing that right now, is what's the latest, and we need to unplug for a little while. So when we talked last time, one of the things we learned last season was that the outside world can force us to change these, what we're calling lightning strike moments, which we're clearly in now. And when that happens we have to react. So how do you think we are collectively redefining ourselves in these times?
Dr. Phil: I think that by virtue of it, all of us that said we didn't want to do remote or online teaching or learning, guess what? You know, lightning struck and we had no option, right? So now we're all learning and doing this together and doing it to the best of our abilities. And that would be my message to our faculty and to our students. We're going to do this together to the best of our abilities. And out of this we will redefine ourselves and redefine what is Anne Arundel Community College in that notion of greatness that we are. We already know we've got a great institution, right? So now we have an opportunity to seize this moment, this lightning strike moment that you alluded to, and coming out on the other end as better students, better faculty, better staff, better institution, more equipped and more resilient.
Dan: What about for yourself? Would you say you're redefining yourself as well?
Dr. Phil: I am. I didn't think I would be doing this level of work in this type of crisis again before I retire my boots, as it were. But here we are. Here we are again, and I've found myself reconnecting with folks that I've been doing this work with for well over 20, 25 years now. I just had a conversation with the director of the emergency response unit with department of health. Very good friend of mine. We worked together in the National Capital Region for years and so we reconnected this morning right before a conference call. Didn't really expect myself to be in this spot again doing this type of work. And it's old hat, right? It comes right back to me and I just pulled out my thumb drive that had all the plans and things on it and started sharing information.
I'm also happy to have been able to work with our school administration and the president and her immediate vice president, just sharing insights that I had from outside of the college environment to help inform their decision making and then quietly slipping back to my role as assistant dean as they made those decisions and disseminated them throughout the college. But it felt good to be able to offer that level of assistance in the tough decisions that they had to make about where the college needed to go.
Dan: Well, I know that was hugely helpful to them. Just hearing you talk about dusting off old plans, for so many of us, this is brand new, but for you to say this is what we plan for, this is what we prepare for, this is what we do, that must be comforting to them.
Dr. Phil: Yeah. And talking about that notion of redefining, that's the piece I would share with everyone. This is an opportunity for us all to think, just as 9/11 was, just as Hurricane Katrina, all of the large national catastrophes, if you were. It's an opportunity for us to rethink what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how we can do it better and safer and how we can be better prepared for these unknown but inevitable incidents in our lives. I would say for any of us, I firmly believe, and I said this the last time we chatted, Dan, in lifelong learning, right? What is it that I can learn now that will guide me as I move forward in my life? And what new things can I pick up and what better place to do it than in an educational institution? We should all be excited about this opportunity to learn some new things and to grow in different ways.
Dan: For people who are struggling with that idea, because I absolutely agree with everything you're saying, but some people may be a little resistant right now, what advice do you have for them to get over that hurdle?
Dr. Phil: Try it. Try something new, right? Because otherwise you stay in this stuck place and we stress ourselves out. And I'm not talking about taking on additional burdens and stress and extra classes. I'm not talking about any of that. I'm just talking about opening yourself up to new opportunities and seizing opportunities to learn something new. If that's a class, that's great, right? That's an awesome way to learn something new.
Dr. Phil: But we grow when we take the current and see the opportunities to move forward with it, not when we get lost or absorbed in those moments. And I think this is a great opportunity for that, right? For us all to sort of take this moment and think about what can I do to better myself? What can I do to better my community? What can I do to better my state, our college. We're at one of those seminal moments. And I would encourage folks to think about that and to reflect on. I love our mantra of redefine you, right? How do you redefine yourself in this very challenging, in this very stressful time? But we can. We're a resilient people and we can do that.
Dan: Absolutely. Well, I know you're so busy and you're not slowing down, but I really appreciate you taking the time to chat and bring your perspectives. Thank you so much.
Dr. Phil: Absolutely. It's my pleasure and I'm hoping everyone is going to take very good care of themselves and we will see each other again. We'll see each other again on the flip side of this.
It’s important to stay informed, but immersing ourselves in the current news flow can weigh us down. It’s hard not to feel stuck in the heaviness of the moment.
Phil advises developing our own form of “battle rhythm” to stay up-to-date without becoming overwhelmed. He also suggests we use this time to spot new opportunities for moving forward. The only way to do that is to write our own playbook. One that outlines time to unplug, relax and find balance so we can discover where best to put our energy. Whether that’s learning something new, finding a way to serve or rethinking what we do and how we do it.
Even in a time of struggle, we can redefine ourselves for the better. As Dr. Phil says, we’re resilient people.
Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our executive producer is Allison Baumbusch, our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard. Others who helped with this podcast include Angie Hamlet, Alicia Renehan and Ben Pierce.
Special thanks to Dr. Phil Terry-Smith.
Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website, AACC.edu/podcast. I'm your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.