Dr. Cliff Harris

Strategic Partner and Facilitator

About Cliff

When I was a practicing pediatrician, I had quite a few goosebump moments, moments when any kind of pretense fell away, revealing a real connection with a child or family, and I knew I had made a difference. Families were celebrating the healing of their child, and they were very grateful. For me, as the doctor, these beautiful moments validated the reason I became a pediatrician—to clarify the mystery of healing through scientific inquiry and deliver health.

For ten years, I loved being a pediatrician. Then, unexpectedly, when I became a father, I found that work on the “front lines” of medical care was no longer a good fit for me. I still wanted to stay connected to healthcare. I still wanted to continue to leverage all my skills to help people. But not as a clinician. I was fortunate to find the perfect way to combine my goals and passions: medical development—the career for the second half of my life.

When I changed careers, I thought those days of goosebump moments were behind me. Turns out, I was wrong. I still get to care for patients and their families—just in a different way. I am privileged to open the door of opportunity for patients who express their desire to give back. And, as a development professional, I still get to use my l skills to advocate for their best interest. I now see that giving can be a part of the healing process.

Here’s an example. A surgeon recently contacted me to share that she had a new patient coming to see her who already was asking about ways to support her research, even before the first appointment. Not only was the patient interested in benefiting from doctor’s surgical expertise, he wanted to contribute $250,000 to her research because of what he had read online.

Naturally, that’s great news. However, my training in the ethics of grateful patient development taught me to make sure that patients in active treatment are never solicited. Still, I wanted to respond promptly to his kind offer. So, I met with him, and proposed—because we wanted him to concentrate on healing—that we pause all gift conversations for six months, until his treatment was completed and he had made a full recovery.

The donor was thrilled with this sensitivity to his needs and could see that we wanted a relationship with him based on mutual respect and trust, rather than one focused on his contribution. Nevertheless, he insisted on moving ahead with both his treatment and his gift planning at the same time. And furthermore, he was so moved by my thoughtful approach that he increased his gift four-fold to $1,000,000. It was a goosebump moment.

In addition to the moments of connection that come from interacting with donors, I also find goosebump moments when I’m teaching physicians to accept gratitude honestly and graciously from their patients. Physicians often feel uncomfortable when patients effusively thank them. Their most common reply—“Ah, don’t worry about it. I’m just doing my job”—closes down any discussion and, by extension, the opportunity for a deeper connection. Whether or not the patient has a contribution in mind, the don’t-worry-about-it wall stops all further conversation.

One neurologist whom I was coaching in philanthropy, experienced first-hand the negative power of this barrier when he went through the process of being a patient. After undergoing a grueling two-year treatment for cancer, he achieved remission. He truly felt that his colleagues had saved his life, but when he tried to thank them for their efforts, they rebuffed his thanks in the typical way. He felt incomplete. He wanted his caregivers to know how grateful he was but, because of their discomfort with receiving gratitude, they inadvertently diminished his experience.

His experience as the “rejected” patient opened his eyes to the disservice a physician does to their patient when they reject expressions of gratitude. During our coaching session, when I brought up the concept of receiving thanks, his eyes lit up. He told me that his patient experience moved him to change his behavior when his own patients express sincere gratitude for his care. “I put down my pen,” he said, “look them in the eye, and say, ‘Thank you for saying that. I’m so glad that everything worked out well for you.’” I got a goosebump moment from this conversation with him—and I also got a great story to use for coaching other doctors!

Interestingly, and maybe more importantly, this neurologist reported that his joy as a practitioner has blossomed. Working in healthcare is emotionally challenging. Burn-out abounds. Learning to accept gratitude—for quality care, no matter the outcome—is a simple, yet powerful way to refill one’s emotional tank. Arming my physician colleagues with this simple technique to access more joy in their work, to battle being emotionally drained, creates the goosebump moments of which I am most proud.