When Dr. Tom Frieden, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, worked on public health issues in India many years ago, he knew it was easy to become daunted by the massive challenges confronting that country and its people.
He developed a motto for his staff, who tirelessly worked to make a difference even though many days the challenges seemed insurmountable.
"Irrational optimism,” he would say at the start of each day, "is a prerequisite for success.”
This week, in a conference room at the Hazard Community and Technical College, I saw firsthand the power and potential of “irrational optimism.”
Along with hundreds of others — including Dr. Frieden and Congressman Hal Rogers — I participated in a daylong symposium on health issues. It’s part of the SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) campaign being led by Congressman Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear.
One of our own, Dr. Nikki Stone, a dentist, is leading SOAR’s committee on health issues. Several of our faculty and staff who work on the most critical issues confronting Appalachia also were present.
It would be easy, looking at the mountains to climb, to become discouraged. After all, of Kentucky’s 54 Appalachian counties, 41 are classified as “distressed,” meaning their economic indicators place them among the lowest 10 percent in the country. A recent New York Times article went so far as to label one of those counties, Clay County, as the most difficult place in America to live.
But where so many see problems, Kentuckians see potential. Where others place limits and barriers, Kentuckians see the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
One of the key reasons for the pervasive sense of optimism in that room is the University of Kentucky. I was proud to represent UK at the SOAR symposium as we announced two major initiatives — in partnership with the CDC, National Institutes of Health, Appalachian Regional Commission and Appalachian Regional Hospitals — to directly address health-care needs in the mountains.
One is a five-year, $1.5 million project to help patients with cancer navigate the often confusing and growing system of treatment options; the other program is the development of an intensive three-week initiative to train community leaders and health-care leaders in the mountains. These are just two of dozens of programs and initiatives we are conducting for — and most importantly, with — communities throughout the mountains. From unlocking through research the mysteries of disease at the cellular level to engaging in evidenced-based approaches to problems at the community level, UK is investing in micro interventions that, taken together, offer the promise of macro-level change.
It is what we do each day. It is in our DNA.
I recently heard an interview on a favorite radio show of mine with the leader of a church in Denver — the House of All Sinners and Saints. She was discussing the idea of what it means to be human; what it means to be part of a community.
The minister said she disagreed with the notion that God will never give you more than you can handle. “God,” she said, “will never give you more than your community can bear or you as a member of a community.”
The idea, of course, is that we all need each other. And we all have responsibilities to each other. That’s what it means to be part of — and partners with — community.
At the University of Kentucky, we are part of a special community, 150 years strong and with infinite promise still to achieve. And it’s our work, in partnership with communities across the Commonwealth, that creates the possibility of turning irrational optimism into success for our Commonwealth and beyond.