Sharing Gifts of the Heart

Sometimes fortunate things come to us by way of unfortunate events. Happiness is a choice, and humility, gratitude and generosity are at the heart of it.

My friend Dr Hassan Tetteh is such a wizard at turning unfortunate events into blessings, you might think that his entire life has been charmed. I have been meaning to write to you about Dr. Tetteh, whom I know simply as Hassan, for a while. I wish you could meet him. You would feel better about everything if you did. Hassan is an award-winning heart surgeon, a commander in the US Navy and assistant professor for surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Based on his experiences in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2011, where he treated critically injured Marines in the sand and heat of a war zone for several months, Hassan wrote an inspirational, heartfelt novel called Gifts of the Heart, published this summer.

I first became aware of Hassan’s inspirational gifts while at his house on July 4th, 2011 for his deployment send-off party. A large gathering of family, friends and mentors from throughout his life came to celebrate his achievements and wish him well. At the time he received his letter, this dedicated father and health policy expert had other plans. Like many of our men and women in uniform, he was abruptly called to leave behind his young family and home to be put in harms way. He said he wanted to go with a positive attitude. I was struck by the grace with which Hassan accepted what he was called to do.

As I was leaving the party, I told my friend so. And he shared with me then one of the life lessons that later pop up in his book, about facing great doubt, uncertainty and even despair. In a nutshell, there is no looking back, only forward. “When we live the committed life to which we are called, we will make a mark in this world,” he said.

Hassan is a gentle spirit with nerves of steel, capable of skillfully stitching your heart back together under the most austere or hectic conditions and just as skilled with a word of praise or comfort. Gifts of the Heart follows the harrowing experiences of a similarly talented surgeon on the battlefield. Hassan has kept a daily journal with notes about his life for many years. After returning from his deployment, he dedicated several months to turning his experiences into a book, timing it’s release to coincide with a speaking engagement at the International Toastmasters Convention. Writing the book was one way for Hassan to share life lessons about gratitude, humility and expanding one’s capacity for love and respect for others. “It was cathartic,” he said at a recent book-launch. He has also started a blog called doctortetteh and is on speaking tour promoting his book. His goal is to reach one million people with its hopeful message. Part of the proceeds go to support veterans organizations.

In addition to the writing projects, Hassan has been visiting schools and giving motivational talks to young people. He recently spent two days traveling to speak with teenagers at Brooklyn Tech High School, elementary school students at BelovED Community Charter School in Jersey City, and pre-health professionals at University of Maryland College Park. He shared his professional life story and encouraged them to aim high, work hard, never give up, and seek rewarding careers in health care. He also talked about the power of faith and grace.

Hassan is the son of immigrants whose courageous journey to the Unites States from Africa factors prominently in his fictional, reality-based tale. At a recent book-signing in Washington, DC, I heard him speak about our military heroes and his deep-seeded faith in the US despite all its troubles. “It’s the most imperfect, perfect place to be,” he says.

During his deployment, I wrote to Hassan from time to time to offer a word of encouragement, inquire as to how he was doing. I hadn’t done such a good job staying in touch with soldiers in my family who had been deployed earlier and I wanted to do a better job of supporting my friend. Hassan replied to every email and thanked me for staying in touch. In one of my messages, it was the tenth anniversary of 9-11, and I wrote about my son Henry, who insisted on a family moment of silence that morning in honor of the people who died, though he was a toddler in 2001 and has no memory of the attacks.

When Hassan returned to the States, he told me he had a gift for my boy and asked when he could meet him. It happened that Henry was planning a party – a classic Henry-style extravaganza with an elaborate menu and creative activities for younger kids. So I invited Hassan and his family to join us.

Hassan and his wife Lisa and their children came to the party with this giant red box addressed to Henry. In the midst of the party, Henry and I sat on the couch and opened it together. Inside was a huge wooden black frame behind glass that held an American flag, folded to a triangle with just the stars on blue showing. Below the flag was an official document stating that the flag had flown over Hassan’s base in Afghanistan on December 10, 2011 in Henry’s honor.

When he first saw the flag, Henry didn’t really get the full meaning of it. He thanked Hassan and quickly went back to the party.

Later, after his guests had left, my boy took a closer look at the American flag, the document and the case they came in. He asked me if the flag had already flown. I said “Yes, that’s the whole idea. It flew in Afghanistan and its dedicated to you, for your patriotism.”

Henry’s eyes widened.

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Proud,” he replied, with a look of surprise, as if the emotion were brand new to him.

At the time, Henry was going through a really difficult period adjusting to his first year of middle-school, dealing with bullies and a heftier course load. At home, his older sister wasn’t giving him much relief, in fact she snubbed his party. Watching Henry take in the full meaning of an honorary US flag in his name was like watching the lion in the Wizard of Oz get his courage. The display now hangs prominently in his room.

You never know what a word of encouragement or thanks might mean to someone else, whether he’s a soldier in a war zone, or a 12-year-old boy just trying to make it through the sixth grade.

Hassan makes it a practice of doing thoughtful things for people and he suggests that all of us do the same. At the book-launch, he left his listeners with what he calls a “A Recipe for Happiness,” a list of actions to focus your mind and your life on joy, based in part on the happiness work of a Harvard classmate, Shawn Achor. These actions include habits you have heard before – focusing on gratitude, physical exercise, journaling and simple meditation. But the capper is making “random acts of kindness” a part of your daily life.

I thought about this, as I was in line to receive a copy of Gifts of the Heart at the book signing. Since I already had one copy that my friend had autographed to me, I stopped to think about who I should have this book dedicated to. I was reminded of my dad, a Korean War veteran who is also retired colonel with the Wisconsin National Guard. Like Hassan, my father has also worked in war zones and treated injured soldiers. Perhaps he would appreciate the thought. So I asked Hassan to autograph the book to him. A few days later, I mailed the surprise gift with a card thanking my father for his service and for being my dad. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever thanked him for either of those things before.

Hassan was right. I felt happier after sending it.

A week or two later, my father called to thank me. He enjoyed the book and said it reminded him very much of his service in medical tents in Korea, a pivotal time in his youth. Medicine is more advanced now, but many of the same battlefield challenges remain. My dad can talk. A long time. And normally, I am shorter on patience. But the very least we can do for our soldiers who have bravely served, whether recently or long ago, is to hear their stories. So, I let him talk. And with new appreciation. We were on the phone for over an hour.

My dad had questions about my friend, the author of the book. He wanted to know how I knew him and how a heart surgeon with a family could possibly find time to write a novel. I explained that we were classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition to his medical degree, Hassan has an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and an MPA from Harvard. “There are two things you need to know about Dr. Hassan Tetteh,” I said. “First of all, there is nothing he can’t do. He’s extraordinary that way. And secondly, we’re pretty sure he doesn’t sleep.”

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If you are in New York City for Veterans Day, you can meet the author at his NYC Book Launch Event on Sunday, November 10, from 5-7 pm at the Broad Street Ballroom, 41 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004. To register or make a donation to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Organization, visit the link here.

For more about the book Gifts of the Heart.

Or follow Doctor Tetteh at http://www.doctortetteh.com or on twitter @doctortetteh

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Story by Amy Ambrose
Amy@faceyourtalent.com

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Looking Forward, Eyes Closed

If we were heroes, my son Henry and I would have the same super power.

He and his dad toured the East Coast by car this summer. Before they left, Henry made a note of a comic book store in New Jersey he wanted to see that is the basis for a reality television show.

During most of the drive there, Henry insisted he was going to wind up on television. And his dad kept reminding him, the chances of that were slim. The store might not be open. The odds that the show would be filming that day were not good; the odds that they would need Henry in the show were even slimmer. Yet, Henry, all full of 13-year-old hopefulness, kept insisting it was not only possible he would be on television, but that it was going to happen.

When they arrived at the store, there was activity out front, but it didn’t look open. Henry hopped out to ask what was going on. Guys at the store entrance told him the store was closed. Because they were getting ready to start filming. And, if Henry wanted to, he could be an extra. Did he ever!

Henry was positioned in the background, looking through comic books, while the main characters negotiated the value of movie memorabilia.

This story brought to mind another well-known family legend — about the time I made a tree branch destroy the picnic table, or at least that is the way it’s told. I had been insisting for weeks that we needed to replace that old, weather-worn, wooden table. My husband disagreed. And then one night, we heard a loud crash – a thunderstorm smashed a tree limb down the middle, removing all doubt. After that, I got my new picnic table. My kids joked that if I had a super-power it would be making things happen by saying they will.

I told Henry he must be the same way. Actually, it’s not so much a super-power, but an ability everybody has — not to control the weather or what time a comic book show will be filming, but to set the intention on what you want and go for an opportunity when you see one.

Setting the intention is one of my top three favorite pastimes. I’m never without a wish, whether it’s modest goal such as giving my next Toastmaster speech, or a grand one-step-back-from-the-impossible aspiration, such as moving my family cross-country for grad school. I enjoy setting a target in the future and breaking that down into steps that start now. As a result, I am in a nearly constant state of anticipation, which can be a lot of fun.

There is a balance though, and I am working on this lately, between planning ahead and making the most of what is in front of me now. A big chunk of happiness lies in appreciating the mundane, because that’s what every wish-come-true becomes once you get used to having it around. Every ‘there’ becomes ‘here’ if you stay awhile. This here is what you have.

So, what if, just for now, everything were exactly as it should be and there was nothing left to wish for? What would happen if I quieted the goal-setter in me and practiced thinking more like that?

About two months ago, I was browsing my city’s downtown marketplace and noticed a table where a nice lady was handing out flyers about the benefits of meditation. She was starting a class for beginners and asked if I would like to participate. I was in a suggestible mood. I said sure. A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a clean, bright room, with my hands folded just-so on my lap, slowly learning to breathe extra-deep.

At first, I found the physical posture uncomfortable and didn’t feel much else, but I sensed that I was onto something positive. So, I decided to trust the process for a while, ‘run the experiment’ as a friend of mine would say. I continued to attend the class weekly and to practice a few minutes daily, gradually increasing the time to about a half-hour. At home in the evenings, I sit half-lotus on a yoga mat, looking forward with my eyes closed, and set an alarm that sounds like crickets. As best I can, I focus on my breathing until they chirp.

Most days, my busy mind hardly sits still. And often there is a lot of background noise in the house. I had my doubts. Within a few weeks, though, I noticed changes in the way I reacted to every-day irritations. More patience, less complaining. And I was more aware of the small things that can make an otherwise unremarkable day seem great. Like the busy chaos of family life on any given Wednesday. Or the calm of an empty house for a few hours. Or the sound of high school marching band practicing in a nearby football field on an August afternoon.

After about a month, I noticed that areas in my life that had been stuck started to shake loose. Old habits lost their grip. I took care of projects around the house that I had put off for years, especially clearing out old junk. I found myself naturally making healthier choices. Fried chicken no longer had the same appeal. I wanted the lentil salad.

The more I focused on accepting the way things are, the more life started to shift in the direction I had wanted it to go, and I noticed a general arc toward greater contentment. I could say more, and maybe I will in a future blog, but for now I will leave it at that. Along the way, I also learned that there is scientific research to explain how this works. Curious readers may want to watch this TEDx Talk by skeptical neuroscience researcher, Sara Lazar. Or check out the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson. There are many approaches to meditation. It happens that the class I found is Heart Chan, a practice based in Buddhism as taught by a long line of Chinese master teachers.

My family keeps me from taking this practice too seriously, especially Henry. To let them know when to leave me be, I posted a sign on the bedroom door that says “Meditation In Session.” My son drew a cartoon on it.

I’m still chronically future-oriented — that’s a part of life and will probably always be my nature. For starters, I can’t wait to see Henry’s television debut. I hope the show used the shots he was in. It won’t air for several months. In the meantime, we already have our family travel plans set for Christmas. And, I aim to do a couch-to-5k running program this fall…

But, I am getting better at balancing the goal-setting with living in the moment.

A few nights ago, my son wanted my attention, to help him construct lego scenes in his room. “Mom, you said you would build the hut for Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker,” he demands.

“Just a second,” I call out from another room, “I need to answer this text message. My friend and I are planning a visit to New York City.”

“You’re procrastinating, again, Mom. That’s not the way of the Buddha,” he teases.

At first, I laugh with him. Then, I pause.

“You’re right, Henry. It’s not,” I say. I put the smart-phone down. “I’ll be right there.”

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amy@faceyourtalent.com

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