Step One: Realistic Optimism — It’s important to be optimistic, but that optimism has to be grounded in realism. Blind optimism sets yourself up for failure. I learned that the hard way when I called my boss every 6 weeks promising that I would be back at work in another month or so — for over 2 years. As I result, I felt even worse that I was failing to meet the (entirely unrealistic) goals I had set for myself.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Geralyn Ritter.
Geralyn Ritter is an expert in healthcare policy and Executive Vice President at Organon & Co., a company dedicated to women’s health. She is a survivor of the 2015 Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia. She is also the author of a memoir about polytrauma, recovery and resilience, Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing [forthcoming June 2022, available at bonebybonebook.com and geralynritter.com].
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I have always been fascinated with public policy and politics. I used to think I wanted to join the foreign service and be an Ambassador one day. I think of public policy as trying to make a difference at scale. After college, I went to law school and also got my masters in international policy. I have spent most of my career working at the intersection of law, policy and business. I have worked at a law firm, for the U.S. Government as an international trade negotiator and litigator, at a trade association working to educate and advocate for pharmaceutical innovation, and in two great companies. At Merck, I led Global Public Policy and Corporate Responsibility, served as President of the Merck Foundation and also as Corporate Secretary, responsible for managing our Board of Directors and shareholder engagement on governance matters. I now work for Organon, a new women’s health company spun-out and fully independent from Merck. I am passionate about our vision of delivering a better and healthier every day for every woman and our purpose of helping women and girls fulfill their promise.
A key element of my backstory is the significant break in my career when I was crushed in a train accident. My family flew in and some packed dark suits because I was not expected to live. My injuries were extensive, my career came to a screaming halt, my family life and relationships were forever changed, and (years later) I had to re-enter the workforce and rebuild my career and relationships. The reality is that my body will never be the same. There is no “going back” to normal, there is only the opportunity to move forward in a different way and find a way to live a life of joy.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the most interesting stories of my career happened early on and I learned a tremendous amount from it. I was a very junior attorney at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), which is part of the Executive Office of the President of the United States. I had been at USTR for less than six months when a major case in my portfolio was appealed to the Worth Trade Organization Appellate Body. The case had originally been brought by the United States against India. Because the case related to my area of expertise, I was sent to Geneva to represent the United States and argue the case before an international panel of judges. I hadn’t counted on the political nature of the case in India and the need for the Government of India to demonstrate that they were fighting the case as hard as they could. They sent an entire delegation of the most senior members of the Indian Government to argue the case — the Attorney General, the head of relevant ministries responsible for health, patents, commerce, trade and others. Imagine my surprise when I arrive in Geneva and realize that I will be arguing my very first case ever against the Attorney General, the top lawyer in all of India, as well as all these other Ministers. The oral argument lasted eight hours, and the United States won the case. From this experience I learned at a very early stage in my career not to be intimidated by rank and hierarchy. If you know your stuff, just throw your shoulders back and walk in that courtroom like you belong there.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company stands out in many ways. The most significant is our wholehearted dedication advancing women’s health. This purpose infuses all that we do. As a spin off, we had a clean slate in many areas for which I am wholly or partially responsible. For example, our vision, mission and the purpose statements. The kind of culture we want to build. Our core values. Our stakeholder engagement and policy priorities. Our ESG and sustainability strategy. We had the chance to design all of these from scratch but at scale. Even though we are smaller than the company from which were spun out, we are a fully independent S&P 500 company, with 9500 employees serving approximately 140 markets around the world. There is no company like us dedicated to meeting the unmet health needs of women. We have completed 5 major acquisitions or licensing deals in just our first year — all building our offerings for women and our pipeline to develop new solutions for conditions for which there has been very little research and no new products for decades.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I had a tremendous mentor during my career that hired me into a couple of the organization where I have worked. The thing that really stood out is that he focused on my ability to learn, to collaborate in a 360 degree manner and other skills. He gave me assignments and opportunities where I had little experience and a very steep learning curve. But he believed in me and trusted that I could be successful. I will always be grateful for his confidence in me, which sometimes exceeded my confidence in myself.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
At some time in their life, everyone faces an extraordinarily difficult situation, whether it is the rupture of a relationship, a health crisis, the sickness or loss of a loved one, or a professional setback. Resilience is not just about surviving the challenge, it is about what you learn, how you change, and whether you go forward stronger. Resilient people do not compartmentalize and try to bury their feelings of hurt or loss, they allow themselves to grieve, but also are proactive in learning and finding new ways to move ahead. They are open to new ideas, practices and activities that might help. And they allow themselves to be vulnerable and lean on family and friends for support. Recovery and resilience are not solo activities, even for those that prize their independence and strength.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Resilience often requires courage, including over an extended period of time and across different kinds of decisions. On the other hand, courage can be a single decision at a point in time and may or may not have anything to do with resilience at all. Courage is an element of resilience, but not necessarily vis-a-versa. Resilience requires a willingness to be brutally honest with yourself, to take risks and try new things, and ultimately to exercise the power that we all have to frame our perspective and find something positive to do about the situation so that life can move forward.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Nelson Mandela. I simply cannot imagine being wrongfully imprisoned and suffering as he did for 27 years, and coming out of that experience without bitterness and with determination to advocate for human rights and peace and to make the world a better place for all. For me, he epitomizes resilience.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
The greatest setback in my life is the catastrophic injuries and near-death experiences that I experienced as a passenger on Amtrak 188, the train that derailed outside of Philadelphia in 2015 going 106 mph and killing 8 passengers. I was not expected to live, have had over 30 surgical procedures in the years since then, and was on total disability leave from my job for more than two years. In an instant, at the end of an ordinary day and an ordinary business trip, my entire life and that of my family was upended and has never been the same.
My husband searched every hospital in Philadelphia that night after he heard about the accident and couldn’t reach me by phone. My oldest sons were calling hospitals asking if their mom was there. I wasn’t found and identified until the next morning. My extended family immediately flew in from all across the country, and some packed dark suits because I was not expected to live. My injuries were extensive, my career came to a screaming halt, my family life and relationships were forever changed, and (years later) I had to re-enter the workforce and rebuild my career and relationships. The reality is that my body will never be the same. There is no “going back” to normal, there is only the opportunity to move forward in a different way and find a way to live a life of joy.
Physically, I will always be weaker than I was before the accident. There was simply too much damage. I live with chronic pain and uncertainty as to when some new complication will arise, and I will find myself back in the hospital. Emotionally and professionally, however, I am stronger as a result of what I have been through. I see the world through a different lens that does a much better job of filtering out the “small stuff” that I used to worry about. I believe that I am more empathetic, and I have found a new calling in trying to help other trauma survivors and those who are suffering build their own resiliency.
One of the most important lessons I learned about “surviving survival” (which is the name of a book by Lawrence Gonzales that was very influential for me) was the need to DO something. I first turned to learning everything I could about “polytrauma” and the connection between the mind and the body. I simply couldn’t understand why I was depressed, suffering PTSD and having the worst fights of my marriage with my husband. As the years wore on, I began to write my own book which is being published in June 2022. It is called Bone by Bone: a memoir of trauma and healing, and I wrote it in hopes of helping others facing sudden crises. There is so much I know now that I didn’t know back in 2015 when I was injured. Bone by Bone is a true story of hope, and it is the book I wished I had had at the beginning of my journey. I have also pledged to donate all of my proceeds from the book to non-profit organizations that support trauma medicine and trauma survivors, such as the American Trauma Society / Trauma Survivors Network. This and other efforts to ‘pay forward’ the kindness, grace and support with which I have been blessed has helped me give meaning to the accident and made me more purposeful in how I spend my time during this second chance at life.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I was a gymnast and a springboard diver growing up. In both, courage is often required to learn a new skill. In diving especially, no one can “spot” you or catch you in the air while learning a new trick off the platform or high dive. There comes a point where you just have to jump, keep your wits about you in the air, and try to add that extra somersault or twist before you hit the water. It definitely requires courage, a willingness to fail and end up bruised and with the wind knocked out of you if, for example, a 2 and ½ becomes a 2 and ¼ and you end up in a perfect bellyflop from a great height. Or if you misjudge your distance from the diving board and tear off all your fingernails when you hit it on the way down. (Yes, I have done both.) But two things are really important in both sports. First, there is no half-way. There is no way to be tentative. To success, you have jump with all your might and trust your training. Second, there is a rule in diving that once you start walking down the board, you cannot stop. That is called a balk and is a major deduction. Again, you have to have the mental discipline to put your fears aside, ignore the “what ifs”, and (literally) take the leap. And if you fail, you get right back up and try it again. And again. I am not naturally a fearless person, but whether it was balance beam or the high dive, I fought that fear factor throughout my athletic career, which ended as a Division 1 diver at Duke University.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Step One: Realistic Optimism
It’s important to be optimistic, but that optimism has to be grounded in realism. Blind optimism sets yourself up for failure. I learned that the hard way when I called my boss every 6 weeks promising that I would be back at work in another month or so — for over 2 years. As I result, I felt even worse that I was failing to meet the (entirely unrealistic) goals I had set for myself.
Step Two: Grief is OK
Speaking of resilience presumes that something challenging has happened. It is ok to let ourselves feel bad, to feel grief, to not ignore our natural human emotions. I felt guilty for a long time that I was grieving. Eight people died in the train derailment. What right did I have to complain? I was alive, recovering at home with my family. I had to let myself step back and grieve for those who lost their lives, but also grieve for what I had lost, the pain I felt, and my uncertain future.
Step Three: Find the Good
Ultimately, I resolved that this would not be a ‘lost year’ in my life. I would learn something. In the beginning, it was simply that I was home everyday when my boys came home from school. This had never happened before. I had always worked and for the first time, I was reliably home and ready to ask them about their day at school every single day at 3:00 when they walked through the door. Maybe I was still in my pajamas, never showered, and just barely managed to find my feet at 2:59, but those moments were still special. They motivated me. My boys and I have been closer ever since the accident. We say ‘I love you’ more and we hug tighter. We pray before every meal. Even after such a devastating tragedy, you can salvage and focus on some kind of positive impact.
Step Four: Do Something
The psychological literature is quite clear that taking action is critical to resilience. When I was ready physically and psychologically, I embarked on a learning journey and then a journey to share my story with church groups, trauma professionals and other groups. I opened myself up to new kinds of therapy to manage my pain. I traveled 1:1 with each of my boys to a destination of their choosing — a live-long dream. I started writing my book. All of these activities rebuilt my self-confidence that a fulfilling life was not beyond my reach. I could still be a good mom, take control of some aspects of my rehabilitation and healing, and have a broader impact to support other trauma survivors.
Step Five: Share it all
I always considered myself a master of self-reliance and compartmentalization. I loved hanging out with my friends, but my priorities were family and work. Losing every ounce of my independence for an extended period of time fundamentally changed my outlook. I treasured my husband’s devotion to my care, but we simply responded to trauma in dramatically different ways and often found ourselves in heated arguments. I didn’t want to burden my kids. My friends and even former acquaintances that leaned in to help were pivotal to my recovery. I had to swallow my pride, ask for help on a daily basis and let others ease my burden. The laughs we shared and the household tension they helped to release were so important.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am a convert to the importance of mindfulness and meditation. I used to be a huge skeptic. For example, when I was pregnant with the first of my three sons, I refused to take the prenatal classes where they emphasize breathing. I told my husband I had been breathing for 30 years and I was quite sure I knew how to do it. 😊 During my recovery, however, almost every part of my body and every organ system was badly damaged. I was often in excruciating pain, notwithstanding the pain medications I was given. I was desperate and realized I had to try something new. The enforced slowness of my condition opened my mind to alternative methods to regain some sense of agency over my own body. I am a spiritual person and I prayed often. But in addition, getting coaching on meditation, gentle yoga and breathing practices really helped. I also tried to learn from other survivors and read every book I could find on trauma survival, from medical papers about the physiological connection between the body and the brain and the impact on chronic pain, to memoirs of other survivors. The common theme is a learning mindset that helped me to get “unstuck” and supported both my physical recovery as well as pull me out of my depression and PTSD symptoms.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I greatly admire the work of Duke Divinity professor and author Kate Bowler. Her book, “Everything Happens for a Reason. . . and other lies I have loved” is incredible, and I regularly listen to her podcasts. As a young mother, devout Christian and accomplished academic suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, she writes and speaks about resilience and faith with honesty, humor and great intelligence.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!