Gratitude Amid Struggle: Celebrating Wins in the COVID-19 Response

October 18, 2021 | 20:56 minutes

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought challenges to communities nationwide, but there is reason for hope: In the face of these struggles, health agencies are seeing real progress that will provide benefits long after the pandemic passes.

In this episode, Anne Zink (Chief Medical Officer, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services) and Larry Lewis (licensed psychologist and executive coach) speak on the importance of celebrating “small wins”—tangible stories of progress that can sustain the public health workforce in an otherwise trying time.

Show Notes


  • Anne Zink, MD, FACEP, Chief Medical Officer, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Public Health
  • Larry Lewis, PhD, Licensed Psychologist and Independent Executive Coach



This is Public Health Review. I'm Robert Johnson.

On this episode: finding the small victories hidden in the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think a lot about the Mr. Rogers saying about finding the helpers.

And there have been so many helpers in this pandemic and response, be it the relationships that we build, the community members being involved, companies and private organizations chipping in—it's been remarkable to see.

Especially here, in the states and in the territories, they're finding programs that they're starting—they're not curing COVID, they're not getting everybody vaccinated with just this one program, but it's a start—and when they celebrate it, oh, you know they're glowing inside, and it's inspiring.

Welcome to Public Health Review, a podcast brought to you by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. With each episode, we explore what health departments are doing to tackle the most pressing public health issues facing our states and territories.

Today: looking for small victories that have resulted from the pandemic response; making note of them, maybe even celebrating them, as a way to motivate and sustain overworked public health teams.

Our guests on this episode talk about small wins and they tell us how to find the positive, even when it's surrounded by so much that's gone wrong.

Larry Lewis is a board-certified executive coach and a former Army psychologist. He'll be along later to tell you how to see the pandemic silver lining.

But first, we hear from Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the state of Alaska and ASTHO's president elect, with her take on small victories.

You know, the pandemic really has brought so much bad news for so many people—you know that firsthand.

From a lot of different perspectives, it's kind of hard to imagine having had any wins in the last year and a half.

Is it tough to find small victories during this time?

I don't think it's tough to find small victories, and I think it's actually crucial to the response to find both small and big victories.

I think a lot about the Mr. Rogers saying about finding the helpers. And there have been so many helpers in this pandemic and response, be it the relationships that we build, the community members being involved, companies and private organizations chipping in—it's been remarkable to see.

I think we've had a lot to learn and probably more to learn from our victories than our weaknesses, and I hope that we continue to pause and take time to think about those, to celebrate them, and to build upon them, because I think that's how we're going to build a better system moving forward.

You wear a lot of different hats. One of those is chief medical officer for the state of Alaska.

What are the small victories in Alaska during this pandemic?

There's been so many.

I think that the main one I think about is the relationships that have been built—and that's the relationships both within our team as well as with our local communities and partners.

So, just for example, our tribal health partners. We built our entire vaccine team in combination with our tribal partners; and with that collaboration, we were able to get vaccine out to a state bigger than Montana, Texas, and California combined in the middle of winter without a lot of challenges, secondary to a lot of community members stepping in and helping to figure out what that last mile looks like.

And so, we continue to hope to build on that, but I feel like I could go all day about the many small and large victories.

Well, let's talk about that from a national perspective. You're also the president elect for ASTHO.

What about those victories?

It's been really rewarding and fun to see my other state health officials and where they've seen victories.

So, for example, in looking at Washington state, and seeing the collaboration between IT and the state being able to send up some really robust data informatics systems. Certain states have had really robust combinations and partnerships with their private industry, from everything from making hand sanitizer, to PPE; a local municipality understanding of what public health really is, and the importance of prevention and being able to move upstream.

But I also think it's in the small things. I love hearing stories from my other state medical advisers and state health officials about the smiles that they saw helping Afghan refugees come in, about the stories of getting vaccine out and what that looked like.

So, I think it's both in the small and large victories that we see across the state that keep us in the job, keep us inspired. But we need to continue to look up.

When it comes to reconciling what's happened during the pandemic and how bad things have been with this idea of celebrating small victories, how can public health professionals recognize those little wins while still being sensitive to the pandemic's toll?

Yeah, I think it has to be done in collaboration.

As you mentioned, we need to be sensitive to the toll that this pandemic has taken, but also look at the areas of resiliency. I always like to say to my kids that they can do hard things; and so, I love to look at where we've been able to do hard things in this pandemic and where that's did forward.

I also think a lot of this pandemic is like a storm surge that has hit our coasts and has decimated communities and villages. And as that storm recedes, we're going to be left both with the cracks that that caused, but we're going to see the rocks and the things that were able to withstand that storm and be able to build on it.

So, I think that we must focus on the positive, the places that have been there. And I think that there are small ways that we can do it and big ways that we can do it; so, everything from, you know, I try to make sure my login for my passwords is something that brings me joy in the day, to having our meetings always end with a shout out to what's going well within our group, in our community.

And whoever's on that meeting in that team, my director of public health and I finish every day by saying, "What were your wins for today?" And in that, I see a totally different perspective in the response, and I think it helps us going forward.

And then, I think in our larger processing of what this pandemic has looked like and how we're going to be able to move forward, we need to not only acknowledge it—all the places that has failed and where we have struggled in our response—but in the ways that we have succeeded, we have built, and the amazing things that we've been able to accomplish in the last 18 months.

So, you can testify to the results of focusing—somewhat—on small victories during all of this.

Oh, for sure. It makes not only every day better, but it also makes your direction better.

And, you know, I think that we go where we look; and if we're always looking at the negative, that's where we're going to go.

Are there any secrets to doing this when you're surrounded all day by dark pandemic clouds?

I think it takes active work. I think, again, it's in the small things that you do, and it's also in the big things that you do.

I think just pausing and asking your team, you know, “Tell us a win for today, give a shout out to someone else who's in there,” you see work that you may have missed.

So often, we come to our meetings and our efforts together, and we just share the problems because those are the things that we need to solve. But by pausing and making space for sharing the positives, you see ways that others were able to solve problems that maybe you have missed, and that will provide you new insight and new tools to be able to move forward.

So, I think that it's upon us as leaders to be able to make sure that we make the space for the positive build on the positive and find ways moving forward, not just for our mental health and capacity and our overall wellness, but really for finding the creative, new ideas. That is how we find those little gems in the work that's been happening and be able to build on that, because maybe a success in someone else's project or group could be the success to someone else's.

And so, making that space and time for is critical.

Could you imagine getting through the day without doing this?

No, not at all.

I mean, I do, I look forward to my end-of-the-day touch base with my public health director and saying, "What were your wins for the day?" And it made be really small, and maybe I got that email out that's been sitting in my email box for so long, it's been driving me crazy. And maybe they're huge, maybe they've completely been able to shift or change the way that an entire response has been going.

So, for me, that has been the cornerstone of our response. It does not help me to get fearful, to get angry, or to get agitated. And when I am feeling those ways, I always have to go for a run or a walk, and pause, and think about what that is, and think about the positive twist and turns of where I've learned something from a positive manner to help me get out of that space.

I think that when we are able to come to a problem without stress, or without the levels of stress that many of us have experienced during this pandemic and with a positive twist, we're able to see solutions that we may otherwise miss.

And so, I think it's beholden on us to continue to make sure that we're caring for ourselves, caring for our team, and finding that positive so that we can find creative new solutions moving forward.

Larry Lewis teaches executives how to up their game.

During a pandemic, the lessons include tips for finding and recognizing the positives. He's been talking with some public health officials about this approach and shares it with us now.

The pandemic has been so bad for so many people, and that includes people working in public health.

Why do we need to find small victories even when times are tough?

Small victories—they rekindle a sense of hope, they rekindle a sense of agency, they can inspire others. And, in a time of great tragedy, great stress, finding those sparks can catalyze a fire.

There's that old story about three young men, and they were given a task to fill up a room, and the person that could fill up this large room would win a prize.

One person stopped to get a bunch of hay and filled up the room with hay. Another person, in terms of trying to fill up the room, got a bunch of wool and cotton to fill up the room. And the last young lad, he couldn't afford to buy hay or cotton—all he could afford was a match. But with that match, he lit a candle, and that candle lit up the whole room.

Small victories are like that match, and they light up that candle, which is sometimes our spirit, and lights up everything. And that's why it's so important.

Is it hard for public health professionals to do that when they are so busy trying to save lives?

I think it's always difficult to find time.

Yet, when you look at it from just a pure economic standpoint, spending a few minutes in gratitude—just a few minutes—can make more difference than spending hours toiling away and not feeling energized, toiling away and feel like I'm not getting any place.

A few minutes of gratitude can—once again, it's that rejuvenation, it's working on our inner self. There's also a saying, "as above, so below." Those small victories impact how we think, and how we think influences our attitude, and we combine how we think and our attitude will influence our behaviors.

And that's what, ultimately, we're trying to do with small victories, find ways—and now they use this term "brain hack," so think of it as a brain hack that allows us to tap into our best and better selves. In the midst of a storm, it's worth the expenditure.

Give us some examples of small victories in the public health context.

Small victories occur every day in the public health context.

One small victory just recently that was public is when the NBA star, LeBron James, declared he had looked at the information and he was going to become vaccinated.

On the news, you can see the energy, enthusiasm, of all public health officials because one person—but one influential person— made a decision based on becoming educated from public health information that was provided, and because they knew that one person was going to influence thousands and thousands of others.

That's a great example of how a small victory in the public health arena was achieved, and we will benefit from the difference it made.

You're an executive coach and you do training—you teach this sort of thing.

So, teach us here on this podcast how to see a small victory beyond the one you've just spoken about, and then how to recognize it in the appropriate way.

It's starting off with an attitude, and that attitude is, "I am an agent of change for somebody. That somebody is watching me. I don't know always who that somebody is, but somebody is watching me and may be influenced what I do." And once you recognize that, you said, "Think about one something, just one small something."

For example, and I was a Boy Scout years ago, and they always talk about helping somebody across the street. And now, they have a term—paying it forward. And there was a commercial that was out a few years ago where each person saw someone doing a small act of kindness, and that person then was inspired to do a small act of kindness.

And that commercial—and you just saw it in some would say a gratitude change. And in this gratitude change, showing gratitude with small acts. Sometimes you hear now, “You know, today I'm going to buy somebody standing behind me in line their Starbucks,” and that person being a recipient of that Starbucks, who knows what that person will go out to do in terms of reciprocity forward, paying it forward.

And so, we all can find one small something that we can do that's meaningful beyond ourselves, that propels progress forward so that progress can be helping somebody's spirit. It can be physically helping somebody—that can, in public health, be, "I'm going to drive somebody to a vaccination site today." It's not going to cure COVID, but it may save this one life, and who knows what that life will do for somebody else.

That's one way of doing it, just saying, "What is one something I can do that's meaningful and that's going to make a difference," and then, from there, everything else falls into place.

Tell us why it's important to make time for this kind of thinking for this approach when trying to hold down a virus, trying to get people back to normal.

I could give you several reasons as we wrap up.

Small wins, small victories, they change our self-perception; literally, how I view myself is actually changed by the behaviors I engage in. And if I'm doing a small victory for others now, I'm no longer just Larry Lewis, a sentient being here on earth. I'm Larry Lewis that does acts that changes the environment.

That's why oftentimes in school they talk about recycling—going out, just picking up plastic from the roadside. Now, I am an environmentalist just when picking up plastic. So, it changes our self-perception, and it changes who we are.

It also instills hope. As we're speaking here today, and especially here in the states and in the territories, they're finding programs that they're starting—they're not curing COVID, they're not getting everybody vaccinated with just as one program, but it's a start—and when they celebrate it, oh, you know they're glowing inside, and it's inspiring. And that's why it's important. And that's how we can do it.

And I just want to say, my heart goes out to all of our public health officials who are achieving those victories, small and large. [The sound of applause] And the sound you hear is two hands clapping.

They deserve our standing ovations, as well as the doctors, the nurses, all of our hospital personnel and our first responders, all those that are out there on the front lines on a day-to-day basis, winning the war against COVID, small victory at a time.

Thanks for listening to Public Health Review.

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For Public Health Review, I'm Robert Johnson. Be well.