September 2016: We’ve been fellows for just a few days, and already we are on our way to meet a stroke survivor. Not just meet—we enter her home and get a firsthand glimpse of her journey through stroke. She shows us the modifications that have been made to her home, which make it possible for her to complete activities of daily living independently. Gathered around a patio table, we sit listening, enchanted by a story of survival and adaptation, sorrow and strength, determined persistence.
This early encounter left an indelible impression on me. During ideation brainstorming sessions, my mind would wander back to this meeting, conjuring up the details of the stroke survivor’s home and her profound and emotional account of her experience, shared so generously and selflessly with us. Among others, this encounter created the canvas upon which the four of us would find room to collaboratively create innovative solutions to improve stroke care.
These conversations with stroke survivors and healthcare providers created the foundation for our application of human-centered design. Through HFA, I came to believe that a solution must not only be innovative—it must also be impactful. Designing with constant feedback from a diverse array of users is crucial to iterating upon a solution in an effort to maximize its positive impact. An entrepreneur should let the loop of positive feedback guide the direction of development, rather than deferring to personal beliefs about the ‘best’ solution. After all, the goal is to design for the user. I’ve also learned that this issue is an incredibly fine line to walk: users often cannot tell you themselves what they need, and yet you cannot build a solution on assumptions. The dance of the entrepreneur is a delicate balance, it seems!
February 2017: We find ourselves at the adaptive open-gym session for traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivors at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH). We’re here to speak to stroke survivors about one of the ideas we’ve narrowed to after our ideation phase. However, two things stand out to me most: 1) resilience, and 2) dedication.
The energy of those who come to the open gym is contagious. “Have you spoken to those guys over there?” Harsh, the peer mentor and open gym coordinator cheerfully asks, pointing some of the attendees toward us. I see a room full of smiles, laughter, and people working with persistence to gain strength—a superhuman feat, it appears to me from the sidelines. Day and evening, I see dedicated therapists and coaches like Harsh who work tirelessly to help those recovering. This makes me realize that behind every innovation that blossoms into the spotlight, there are people like the NRH staff who make the application of these innovations possible. For every new app, there is the speech language pathologist working with bottomless patience with patients and phones to show new exercises. Without application, innovation can’t make an impact.
July 2017: As I sit and reflect, I find it difficult to translate into words the flashbacks of images that flood my mind. A final one that I’d like to mention is the image of us as fellows on the first day and on the last day we saw one another. From strangers (and pretty different ones at that), to a feeling of deep solidarity and support for one another.
This year has been one incredible ride, and I can’t help but feel certain that I’ll continue to discover the nuances of the skills I’ve gained for months and years to come.
I’ll close my reflection with some words of wisdom to the incoming fellows. This is what I’d imagine saying to myself on the first day of the fellowship:
Don’t doubt yourself and your capacity to create something impactful and innovative. Though you may already feel overwhelmed, find space to explore ideas or topics about which you feel a spark of curiosity. Find time to reflect with intentionality. Balance your life by finding ways to temporarily take respite from the microcosm of the fellowship (forests are nice :)). When you run into an obstacle that seems insurmountable, don’t back down—talk to more people and get creative in your approach to the challenge. Speak to as many patients as possible, as early on as possible. During exploration, begin ideating—jotting down problems you see and brainstorming on potential seeds of ideas to explore further. Have fun, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. This is your time to learn and grow.
Check back over the next several weeks as the other recently graduated 2016-17 fellows reflect on their HFA experience. Join us in congratulating our outgoing class as we prepare to welcome our 2017-18 fellows!