ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The crush of the global pandemic was the setting for Douglas Ziedonis when he started his new job Dec. 1 as head of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.
His concerns as a doctor and administrator are many, of course, but he’s also a psychiatrist and the mental health of those who work for him is much on his mind these days.
“I must say I do worry about the stress (of the pandemic) – that people are working so hard they don’t appreciate it fully yet,” says Ziedonis, executive vice president for UNM Health Sciences and chief executive officer of the UNM Health System. “But once we start slowing down, I think all of that built-in emotion … that people have lived through, you know, it’s going to show. So care for the caregiver is going to be an important component of this year, and we’ve already started to build up our programming in this area.”
Ziedonis, who replaced longtime Health Sciences chief Paul Roth, has specialized in substance abuse and addictions and has had a career-long involvement in research.
“I really got bitten by the research bug and just the fascination of discovery,” he says.
Research in which he has been involved includes a recently published study on how a mindfulness practice can change brain function and help with weight loss.
“Part of my own personal journey has been a mindfulness practice,” Ziedonis says. “I feel like it helps me as a person to listen, to be present, to notice myself. I think that’s good for clinicians. I think it’s good for leadership.”
The child of Latvian immigrants, Zedonis grew up among the steel mills of Bethlehem, Pa. His father was a minister who was recruited to teach Russian studies at a small college. That gave Ziedonis a ringside seat as a wide variety of Soviet travelers stopped by to visit with his father.
“We had the Soviet wrestling team come through,” he said. “All my life growing up, there would be dissidents – or probably KGB agents, I don’t know. But also business leaders. It was like knowing about the world on the front page, in my house every day.”
What kind of “care for the caregiver” programming will you offer your staff?
“Part of it’s reaching out to people, having those listening meetings and asking them what they think would be helpful. Sometimes people are just wanting spaces to be able to talk … so they feel that sense of connection. There are also system issues of how do you make things more efficient. There’s challenges, electronic health records and all the paperwork that health care providers need to do, so those are some of the system changes that need to occur.”
What was it like starting your new job in the midst of the pandemic?
“In the context of COVID, which has been the biggest health and public health matter that I have had to manage in my career … it’s presented some of the biggest challenges for our health system as well as for society. But it’s also been a time where you really have a sense of pride in the front line workers in all of our health system here. And then we’ve had the wonders of science. You know, when I was at (University of Massachusetts), one of my colleagues won the Nobel Prize for messenger RNA. To see that in 10, 15 years that new science is now our vaccines and new medications, I think it shows you the power of science.”
What are your outside interests?
“Music is one. I have a very musical family background. My mother’s father was a wooden flute maker and comes from a whole lineage of making wooden flutes. She showed me pictures of the good old days in Latvia when they would be at the shop together and where they would have little activities, everybody playing an instrument. She was a singer, and I would sing with her in the church choir. I started classical piano … and later I got a little rebellious and played keyboard in a country rock band. And then later in life, I’ve always enjoyed indigenous music from all over the world. I consider myself a closet ethnomusicologist.”
What was a difficult time in your life and how did you cope with it?
“The things that come quickest to mind are when family or extended family have difficulty and how that can impact us and how you want to be supportive for them. I had a niece who was murdered and (saw) how that kind of matter affects the family, how it ripples. So I would say those are existential questions. I find that I have to go to my values, I have to get support from friends, I have to have my spiritual path and whether it’s through prayer or meditation or whatever, people have cultural upbringings that influence this space. I call it a sacred space that, as a physician, I’ve been blessed to be in, whether it’s delivering babies or being there when people are dying or suffering.”
How did being a child of immigrants affect you?
“Early on, I would learn about diversity and the acculturation process and how it is really a journey for people to come to the U.S. They (Latvian immigrants) came because Hitler and Stalin thought Latvia was the playground. My grandmother was in a concentration camp, and it was a miracle she got out. They (relatives) led difficult lives (that involved) concentration camps and displaced person camps. That’s a lot of trauma to live through, and then you come to the U.S. and you have both the hope and also you’re different. You have an accent, you have language barriers and you have to adapt, so a lot of my growing up included my dad helping me to see that.”
What are your pet peeves?
“I would say that I appreciate when people have integrity, and I appreciate when people can have respectful dialogue. So I would say a pet peeve is if that doesn’t occur.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“We like to travel, and there’s certain places we haven’t been like Australia that I call a travel bucket list. I feel blessed that I’ve been to so many places. Reality is when you see COVID, and you see how it impacts everybody. You see that every day is a blessing. So I really just want to live life to the fullest – to be present wherever I am and really experience it. So to me, I’m sure there are going to be great things that happen, but I just want to make sure I’m present and with them. That is really the biggest thing on my bucket list.”