Amy Acton Visits with Students
Stepping back onto the Northeast Ohio Medical University campus 30 years after graduating from the College of Medicine, Amy Acton, M.D. (’90), was in the mood to look back — and forward.
Dr. Acton was at NEOMED September 9 to receive an honorary degree from the University’s Board of Trustees, in recognition of accomplishments including her service as the public face – and to many, the guiding spirit – of Ohio medical leadership in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the director of the Ohio Department of Health until June 2020 – the honor of a lifetime, as she put it – she appeared at Gov. Mike DeWine’s side for regularly scheduled pandemic updates to the state’s citizens. Dr. Acton gained a public following that organized itself into the Dr. Amy Acton Facebook Fan Club – a group of more than 100,000 members that remained active after Dr. Acton stepped down from her State of Ohio post in June.
Before accepting the honorary degree at a Board of Trustees meeting, Dr. Acton — at her sunny best — talked via Zoom to a crowd of more than 200, mostly students with some faculty and staff mixed in.
She spoke of how her deep friendships with NEOMED classmates have sustained her over the years, and how she has been shaped by her experiences — anything from helping Hurricane Katrina victims to working on anti-bullying efforts in the schools.
She also alluded to forces that protested against her, eventually leading her to resign from her government job and to return to a position at the Columbus Foundation. But the negative was just a side note in Dr. Acton’s comments.
“People talk a lot about the bad things that happened to me, which I mostly didn’t even notice, I was so busy working,” said Dr. Acton. “What I actually experienced was a profound unity and kindness from people. I have mail rooms full of artwork and things people have sent, and letters…90 percent of people are rowing and trying to help each other through this.
“The overwhelming force that happened was the togetherness. I know that’s hard to believe, especially right now, when everything’s transpiring to pull us apart. That’s what the rhetoric, that’s what the noise is. (But) every day, I’m still receiving letters from people of all political persuasions, all ages [who] are looking for leaders who call them to something higher.
“They need someone to say, ‘Let’s take that energy and do something with it.’”
Returning to kindness
For Dr. Acton, experiences seem to always circle back to thoughts of leading with compassion.
When you’re a physician, people will listen to you and follow you, she told the students. You will have an ability to convene people.
To lead Ohioans during the pandemic, she borrowed one idea from her schoolteacher husband, who guides his young students with the acronym HAIL: honesty, authenticity, integrity and love.
“I’ve been all over this world and one of my projects was post-genocide Rwanda. And people often wonder: these folks were living neighbor by neighbor, going to school and having things in common. How did all of a sudden…people turn and have machetes? The truth of it was, it was very insidious. It was very quiet. There’s a famous sign out there, going around my parts: Act on love, not hate. But it was actually on radio shows and in the media and the social media of the day, a lot of talk shows and things, that slowly allowed people to start saying hateful messages, “othering” people. Saying things that made them seem somehow distant from you,” she said.
The “love” part in the HAIL acronym isn’t just about romantic love, Dr. Acton noted: It’s about humanity and healing.
“So, what I ask of you as you go forward in your careers, and even in these months, is really work hard on that common humanity part. Because there is no one right answer. There is NO ONE RIGHT ANSWER! These [pandemic] policies are horrifically hard, but it shouldn’t be about denigrating the others to win your position.”
Thank you’s flooded the Zoom chat box as Dr. Acton said goodbye to the students.
Asked afterward why Dr. Acton made an impact on them, two College of Medicine students reflected:
I am in love with Dr. Amy Acton’s journey. She is an inspiration to girls and women who may have had to come from a rough background but still choose to persevere to prove themselves. I just appreciate that such a prominent leader sees kindness as a source of strength rather than weakness. I resonated with her message about practicing medicine using “HAIL.” I admire her strength and resilience to do what she thinks is right for her community and her people.
She is the type of person I aspire to be — a leader in medicine who chooses to practice with kindness and empathy.
—Harini Prabhakaran, College of Medicine Class of 2023
As a life-long Ohioan, having a well-informed and charismatic leader serve as the Director of the ODH was a blessing. I knew with our state in her hands, my family and I would be under the best protection amidst a global pandemic. When I found out she was an alumnus of Northeast Ohio Medical University, my stresses about beginning medical school subsided. I have always been inspired and touched by her ability to overcome adversity, speak her mind, and address conflict head-on. Even without acknowledging her selfless service, those qualities alone make Dr. Acton a role model for all current and future health care professionals. Watching her on TV and even conversing with her today, Dr. Acton easily comes across as empathetic and genuine: it’s easy to see that she has a smile that seems to wipe away all worries and the heart of a champion.
As a NEOMED student, I am so lucky to consider myself a colleague of hers, and am further inspired hearing her talk about HAIL (honesty, authenticity, integrity & love). She is an exemplar of those ideals, and seeing her today was a friendly reminder of why I’ve always wanted to pursue medicine. If I can even just slightly resemble her character, attitude and compassion, I have no doubt I’ll be a great physician who embodies NEOMED and conserves her dedication to serving Ohio and our country.
—Benjamin Arnold, College of Medicine Class of 2024
Photo L to R: President John T. Langell, Dr. Acton, College of Medicine Dean Elisabeth Young (’85)