‘Life is a series of trapeze swings,’ morning ceremony community speaker shares with Class of 2024

Dr. Rachel Patzer speaks at UW-Green Bay's spring 2024 commencement.

UW-Green Bay morning Commencement speaker Rachel Patzer, PhD, MPH knows a few things about the trapeze swings of life: Fear of the unknown; seeing the next trapeze bar ahead and noticing it has your name on it; understanding that major life transitions are where real growth occurs. And the rush that comes when you’re about to let go of one trapeze and grab the next.

Patzer, the President and CEO of the Regenstrief Institute, a research institute dedicated to developing, conducting, and disseminating impactful research in health systems and across communities was the community commencement speaker at the University’s Spring 2024 ceremony. She spoke to a full house at the Kress Events Center about her work to drive advancements in healthcare, such as inequities in access to high-value care, healthcare quality, health systems interventions, and health policy evaluations. She has been instrumental in reshaping the transplantation paradigm, advocating for a population health approach to inform the care of this patient population.

Patzer’s life experiences to date, and commitment to help those needing access to healthcare, model what it means to be a Phoenix. Watch her remarks at timestamp 20:43. Her complete comments to graduates follows:

“Congratulations graduates! And a big thank you to the parents, family members, friends, teachers, mentors, and the community who supported you in this important achievement. What an honor to stand here with you and your community today to celebrate.

I want to pause for a moment and acknowledge that we all are here today because we stand on the shoulders of many others in our community, today and in the past. I am honored to continue to build on the learning that the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Menominee Nation have infused in this land in the past, in the present, and into the future. Returning to Wisconsin, where I also earned my degree in the UW system fills me with a sense of pride for the state that has given me so much. My father was a graduate of UW-GB (class of 1975!). My dad spoke frequently when I was growing up about the incredible value of his education. My time at UW was transformative, thanks to the inspiring mentorship of both my teachers and peers who sparked my interest in writing and epidemiology. The experiences I had during college inspired me to pursue a career in health systems research, which has culminated in my leadership role at the Regenstrief Institute, a leading healthcare research organization. During college, I forged lasting friendships with two of my closest friends, with whom I still maintain near-daily communication. I am sure that you too will be leaving here today with similar connections, both professional and personal. Here is my first bit of advice: keep those people close. Cherish them. It is invaluable to have people who truly know you in your life.

I would not be here today without all the incredible people I have had the privilege to meet and learn from in my life. From my family to my close friends, to colleagues, mentors, and community members, each has played a pivotal role in shaping my path. There are a few themes that come to mind that have helped to shape me, and I want to share with you what these are, and how they have left an indelible mark on both my work and my life.

1. Listening.
The first piece of advice I would like to share is the importance of listening. Listening is so important to building authentic relationships with those around you and in what often feels like a divisive world, listening to people who you may not always agree with is the way we grow. This sounds so obvious but too often we communicate without really connecting deeply. Social media has changed how we communicate and often makes it challenging to authentically connect with others. The way we listen really matters.

As a leader, the most important thing I have done in work is to listen as a way to connect with others. When I started my job at the Regenstrief Institute and moved to Indianapolis, my first major goal was to listen to this new community. I listened to people in many different ways to see how our organization could work to meet the needs of our community and improve the care of patients locally. I listened to community members with compassion as they talked about their desire to have access to healthy foods, transportation to get to medical appointments, and a safe place to live and send their children to school. I listened with curiosity to professional partners about criticisms of how our organization may not have met expectations in the past. And I listened with possibility to staff about how we could grow to develop solutions for a healthier and more equitable world. All of this listening led to the development of a new strategic plan for our institute that was really co-developed by more than 200 people within and across our organization and led to a new focus of our organization on connecting the clinical needs of patients with their social needs. Think about the last time you were wholeheartedly heard and listened to and how gratifying this was. What are the ways you show up to listen to those around you, personally and professionally?

2. People, Community and Co-creation to Solve Problems
The second lesson I have learned is that people and community are the most critical components to solving real, big problems. I may be standing up here at the podium today by myself, but I am not alone. So many other people have contributed to my growth.  I truly would never have had the opportunity to achieve what I have accomplished without them. In life, I believe the best and most meaningful work is done together.

If you’ll indulge me in speaking about one of my most special people, I’d like to mention my mentor from graduate school, Bill McClellan. Bill was an incredible teacher and a true giver. He demonstrated through his actions that a mentor is someone who empowers others to see a future they may not have believed possible. It was Bill that encouraged me to tackle an important problem to solve in our community, and what inspires me to give back to the community today.

When I first met Bill, Georgia had among the highest burden of kidney disease in the nation, but the lowest access to essential treatment for the disease – kidney transplantation. I wanted to know why this was but realized that the fragmented healthcare system was hindering our ability to study the problem. To improve access to care for patients, I would need to connect disparate data sources to study the pathway in which patients get a transplant. The problem was, the established, imperfect healthcare system discouraged the sharing of the critical data we needed to address the problem. Understanding that collaboration was key to solving the problem, we sought to unite community members.  My personal connection to the issue – having lost a cousin who donated organs that saved 8 other lives and having another family member awaiting a life-saving transplant – fueled my determination to make a difference not only for my family but for countless others.

And so, I dedicated the next 15 years to that problem…listening to community members, getting health systems that typically “compete” for patients to share data and work together with the community to develop solutions. We did this by building a Coalition of equal partners who cared about the problem. For over 15 years, this Coalition has collaborated not for the sake of any credit, power, or individual benefit, but has been led by the community, for the community. A recent research study conducted by our Coalition showed that the pervasive racial disparities in access to kidney transplantation have been substantially reduced and that the Southeastern region no longer is in last place for transplant access. And in the last year, based on some of the formative work this Coalition conducted, the federal government has passed a policy that finally has written into law changes that incentivize improving equity in access to healthcare.

I could not have achieved this alone. We had to do it together as a community. Both personally and professionally, my joy in life is derived from the community coming together to solve problems. It’s when I feel most alive and most passionate about my place in the world.
My experience is in healthcare equity, but regardless of your profession or what you do after graduation today, I guarantee you will have the opportunity to make a real impact on the world around you, and you will want to collaborate with others to do it.

So I will ask you to pause and think: Who are the community members you want to surround yourself with to make a meaningful impact on the world around you?

3. Lifelong Learning and also Unlearning.
The third lesson I want to impart is about lifelong learning but also the process of unlearning. I am certain if you reflect on your years at UW-GB, you will acknowledge that you have learned from books, experiences, and people – from brief conversations to deep connections and friendships. You will continue to learn not only how to be good at your profession but also how to grow as a person.  I have learned more from the people I have met along the way, and what I have retained is that character is much more important than professional success.

I’m deeply appreciative for life’s experiences and the invaluable lessons I learn from others.  I’ve learned that I need to be willing to challenge systems and structures and unlearn things too. In 2023, the number of female CEOs finally surpassed CEOs named “John,” highlighting the need to confront long-standing barriers faced by marginalized groups. We must challenge norms and seek solutions within our community, often through dialogue with fellow community members. For instance, a few years back, our Coalition challenged the mandate necessitating patients to undergo dental exams every 6 months to retain eligibility on the national transplant waiting list, considering its detrimental impact on uninsured individuals. This advocacy led to policy changes at numerous transplant centers.

Embracing change and unlearning ingrained behaviors is sometimes uncomfortable, but essential for progress.
After today, how will you continue to learn about the world? What structures are in place that need to be challenged and unlearned to really foster the progress we need to see in the world?

4.Change is growth.
Finally, the last message I want to impart to you is about how to benefit from the scariness of change. It’s ok to be scared or worried about the next steps, which may feel unfamiliar and unknown. When I was in your shoes, on graduation day I did not know what I was going to “do” with my life, but I was open to what may come next.  I STILL don’t know what’s around the corner and where I may be in 5 or 10 years from now. You will have many times in your life when you may not know what to do next, and you may not have it all figured out. You will continue to grow and change, and be one thing and then also another, and that’s a great thing. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a student, a wife, a professor, a mother, and a CEO. In the future, I will likely grow into another role that is unknown right now. You will do many things and BE many things in your life, building and growing from the knowledge of others, through the cultivation of deep relationships with the community around you. In times of big transitions, which you are right at the cusp of on graduation day, I am reminded of the parable of the trapeze, by Danaan Perry, which I will paraphrase:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars. Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady state and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. But once in a while, as I’m merrily swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see?  I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar, and move to the next one. Each time it happens to me I hope that I won’t have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time, I am filled with terror. I am afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway.”

So for all of you hurtling through space right now waiting to catch that bar, it’s ok. These major transitions are where real growth occurs. When I think back about my own major transitions and this feeling of terror that I have – graduating college, getting my first job, becoming a mother, and more recently moving to a new city and new job, I have universally felt terrified. But in reflecting on those moments after the transition, the time after I catch that bar is so valuable – it’s been a chance to expand my community, my worldview, and my life. And, although you may feel like you’re about to release the bar and sail, unfettered through the air toward your next adventure, keep in mind that underneath you isn’t the hard ground, it is a supple net, made up by the interlocking hands of your community.

Stop for a moment and think about that next trapeze you are about to grasp onto, and the one you are about to let go. With your community as your safety net underneath you, and alongside you, I’m here to tell you that you’ve got this.”

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