The specter of fame brings many things – popularity, media attention, rampant analysis of personal behavior – but what it allows most of all is that most vital of human possibilities – opportunity. While many viral heroes often fade into the limelight or write a tell-all book after their brief coronation, a select few seize their chance to transfer that attention in a real and capable way. Chesley Sullenberger, the captain who successfully landed a plane in the Hudson in 2009, seeks this path.
But while eschewing the expected path of advancement for a hero pilot, Sullenberger hopes to improve standards in another seemingly field – health care. As Sullenberger cites, medical errors result in reportedly 200,000 preventable deaths per year - or, as he says, the rough equivalent of 20 airline crashes a week. Does anyone doubt that if this was happening in the airline industry we would ground all planes until the problem was addressed?
Sullenberger hopes to reduce the risks that face patients, and to help exorcise potential losses of life that otherwise could have been avoided with a better establishment of safety. He understands medical and human error cannot be removed completely, but systemic and personal changes can be implemented, changes that could save the lives of many and lessen the toll of loss.
What this kind of unusual path represents – and why it’s valuable to examine – is the responsible and beneficial use of fame’s leveraging power. There are many who become famous, many who gain power and use it for nothing, but what Sullenberger hopes to accomplish is much different. He wants to carve out a place for himself in a new field, but what he also seeks is the improvement of an industry – a real chance afforded him by his newfound fame.
As Sullenberger travels the country and works to improve the standards of practitioners and larger groups (under the careful tutelage of those well-versed in the medical field like surgeon Atul Gatwande), the megaphone of fame he has been provided is an opportunity to spotlight safety – a message that benefits doctors and patients alike. Sullenberger, trailing his past as a hero pilot, has chosen to seize the opportunity to enact positive change in conjunction with those in health care. That kind of joint venture on the heels of fame is something worth aspiring to, as patients, doctors and nurses work tirelessly to provide better, safer care that we deserve and should come to expect.