By Roger Shuler
Robert Bourge, M.D., often puts in 12-hour days as director of the UAB Division of Cardiovascular Disease. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Bourge sees patients, many of whom have advanced heart failure or advanced pulmonary hypertension. The job brings significant stress, but Bourge finds it energizing and fulfilling. For him, work and happiness are closely connected.
“The most satisfying aspect of being a doctor is caring for people, especially very ill patients,” he says. “Most of my patients are referred to me by other cardiologists, who often have nothing else to offer. We apply new techniques and therapies, and in most cases we’re able to improve quality of life. That is very gratifying.”
Bourge is often inspired by his patients. “They have remarkable abilities and stamina,” he says. “Each time I think a problem is beginning to get me down, I think of the problems my patients face and how mine pale in comparison.”
Humor, Bourge says, is especially helpful for anyone who deals with matters of life and death on a daily basis. Although many of Bourge’s patients are very ill, they often find ways to make him laugh. “Quite a few of them have two or three jokes every time they come in. One patient has this wonderful ability to make up a poem on the spot. It might be about my nurse or about his situation, but he almost always finds a way to make it humorous. He came here 12 years ago for a heart transplant, and with medical therapy his heart function has returned to just about normal.”
Doctors and patients who swap lighthearted stories are exhibiting signs of resilience, says education professor Jerry Patterson, Ph.D. Patterson has written three books on resilience, focusing mostly on leaders in the school environment. But he says resilience research can apply to any field.
“Resilience and happiness are intertwined,” Patterson says. “I don’t see them as separate research subjects. We have found that the people who tend to be the most resilient are what I describe as realistic optimists. They have the ability to maintain a positive outlook in the face of adversity, without denying the constraints posed by reality.”
For Mike Gibson, that positive outlook comes from a deep religious faith. Gibson, a clerk at the UAB Post Office, is a familiar face to many people who work in the Administration Building and the research facilities along 19th and 20th streets. He has worked at UAB since 1984 and is a former university Employee of the Year.
“Just knowing that I have God’s help each day has been one of the main influences in my life,” Gibson says. “I try to treat everybody the same way.”
Gibson sorts mail and makes three trips a day to deliver and pick up mail at the buildings in his coverage area. “I enjoy meeting people,” he says. “I like getting out, and it’s good exercise. Being dependable is very important in this job. I like to think that people don’t even need to look at their watches; they know I’m going to be there.”
Daphne Powell takes a similar approach to her work as major gifts officer for stewardship and the University Honors Program in UAB’s Office of University Development. “I like to be known as the official thank-you person for UAB,” Powell says. “I let donors know what we’ve been doing with their money, particularly donors of endowments and major gifts.”
Powell knows what major gifts can mean. She was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was eight years old. “It definitely was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I was almost comatose, in and out of consciousness, when I was diagnosed. It was very touch and go, and I was in and out of the hospital a lot during adolescence.”
Diabetes has helped teach Powell some important lessons. “It gives you a unique perspective, and you learn how every day counts—to be grateful for the moments you have. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true, and it sets the stage for how you view life in general.”
That’s the kind of attitude Bourge likes to see in his patients. “We try to be both honest and hopeful,” he says. “We tell them about their disease. But we also present a statistical probability of them getting better and doing well, especially if they listen to us. They have to be compliant with their medications and follow-up care.”
That reminds Bourge of one of his favorite lines. “I’ve told our patients for years, ‘We’re always willing to compromise with you as long as you do exactly what we say.’ They always laugh at that.”
When Bourge is selecting physicians and residents to join his program, he looks beyond the candidate’s technical skills. “Driven, happy people tend to do very well in our program,” he says. “We look for a teamwork type of personality, someone who works well with others. We try to avoid prima donnas because they are typically focused on themselves rather than working with a group. Medicine takes more than intelligence. A successful doctor is also available and affable. Our program seeks the type of physician who has strong test scores—and is also a nice person.”