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.”
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
Story by Amy Ambrose