The Value of Listening

“To cultivate connections and trusting relationships with people is so important, and when people work together for good it can be transformational.” says Dr. Sarajane Brittis, who first came to The Floating Hospital in 1985 for a summer internship while an undergrad at Wellesley College and returned in 2006 as a consultant. For the past 17 years, she has used her skills as an employment sociologist to help the incredibly diverse management staff at The Floating Hospital communicate and work together toward shared goals. For her, although challenging at times, it’s been a labor of love. “I am a long-term person. I need to work in places where I feel there’s receptivity.”

Her sea excursions as a ship-intern taught Dr. Brittis the value of actively listening to others, including those marginalized by society, and sparked a lifelong passion for the human side of healthcare. She was especially drawn to the elderly patients, which lead to applying for, and winning, the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship to study Western v. Eastern attitudes toward old age—in both London and Japan. The lessons she learned in examining stereotypes toward the elderly informed her approach to management studies: “If we always act on stereotypes, we never get anywhere. We have to figure out what we have in common and what can we do with it.”

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Brittis found a new angle on that purpose when The Floating Hospital quickly realized that socio-economic conditions were adversely impacting its patients’ ability to effectively deal with the new disease. This coincided with a push by the Hospital’s administration to better understand the struggles and barriers to care experienced by TFH patients—and thus, its own version of a Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) study was born.

“At the Floating Hospital, we’re always trying to bring people together so that they don’t feel like an ‘other’ or uncared about. I’m trying to break through that barrier of what does care mean for people who, more often than not, feel unheard and unseen.” With this tenant as her guide, Dr Brittis utilized her skills as an academic researcher to create her own version of an SDoH study specifically tailored to the struggles of homeless families. Together with research assistant Habiba Alcindor, the pair interviewed over 400 homeless family representatives, both at the clinic and at the shelters in which they reside. The process, an extension of the active listening that has permeated her career, was incredibly rewarding, and deeply resonated with patients. “What I found through this was that these women felt like they weren’t being heard, and they were grateful,” she says. “Many would say to me, ‘Nobody’s ever asked us these questions before.’ It was exciting when we realized we might be able to do something about their living conditions.” The voices of these women were heard, and according to Dr. Brittis, “when you feel heard, that’s the start of trust.”

An initial actionable outcome from the pilot study was the immediate creation of The Floating Hospital’s Life Skills Assistance Program, which is helping patients navigate the complexities of generational and incidental poverty; finding housing, employment and childcare; learning stress management and parenting skills; learning basic nutritional and cooking skills; as well as a multitude of other competencies that help families living with homelessness and extreme poverty find their footing toward a better life. As with most Floating Hospital programs that provide more than basic healthcare, Life Skills is not a billable service and relies on the generosity of others to grow and expand. “We were able to get support for the Life Skills program in the form of two Floating Hospital Foundation board members funding the positions to run it,” says Dr. Brittis. “It struck a chord and created immediate responsiveness. People really do care.”

From active listening through collaborative management training to painstaking research, Dr. Brittis’ role at the Hospital could not be more complex, yet more personally fulfilling. “I have to be in a place where there’s meaningful work and where there’s purpose.”

This post is featured in our monthly newsletter from August 2022.

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The Floating Hospital provides high-quality healthcare to anyone who needs it regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration or insurance status, or the ability to pay. By providing unrestricted medical care in tandem with health education and social support to vulnerable New York City families, The Floating Hospital aims to ensure those most in need have the ability to thrive, not just survive.


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