Story has impact; it connects and transforms. Stories inspire; they help people understand complex topics, build resilience and connections, and drive collective action. In uncertain and challenging times, stories can help us regain our sense of connection and purpose.
As core Relational Leadership practices, story and Narrative Leadership are foundational to individual transformation, team transformation, and the transformation of the culture of healthcare. This is the second of our Transformational Power of Story series, which explores the relational power of stories to create connection. Through written and video narratives, members of the Relational Leadership community model the practice of Narrative Leadership.
Lexy Kliewer shared her origin story – what inspired her to pursue her work - at the Collaborative Family Healthcare Conference. An edited version of what she shared is included below.
The narrow valley of Western Montana can be a beautiful place to grow up. Float the river in the summer. Ski the steep slopes in the winter. However, there are things you specifically don’t do growing up in Montana. You do not complain. And you do not go to the doctor until you are near death. To be an advocate is to remain quiet.
I grew up with hot oil as the first line of defense against earaches. We ate meat because we raised cattle. You didn’t think about a way of life beyond the way life was. And you couldn’t have any weird sickness, because it’s likely one’s parents couldn’t afford to take you to the doctor.
I can count on one hand the times I visited a doctor throughout my childhood.
“Well, then don’t do that,” was the sage advice we were given for most ailments. “It hurts to breathe,” I remember saying one night growing up. “Well, then don’t do that.” It turned out that I had a massive cavity and they had to pull my tooth. I did not realize that Well-Child visits were a common practice until I started working in a primary care clinic as a Behavioral Health Clinician. Who knew you were supposed to be seen regularly? I remember thinking, "What on earth is a ‘Well-Child visit’?”
It was only after the hot oil sat inside my ear canal for hours and the aching brought me to tears that my mother would take me to the urgent care clinic for antibiotics. “Don’t tell them I put oil in your ear,” my mother would whisper to me while we waited in the exam room. At the time, none of this was experienced as traumatic. It is just how things were. I didn’t think about it much beyond that.
It was only later that I learned that advocacy is not about heroically remaining silent, but, instead, about knowing when and how to speak up. I also learned that being an advocate meant using your own perspectives, that deep well of complex lived experience, as a resource for others. I had a front row seat growing up to what we can broadly call “Bootstrap Culture,” which is largely a culture born from the belief that barriers are merely what you make of them. As a result, I am acutely and uniquely attuned to the unseen barriers experienced by those seeking healthcare. To state it simply: I was one of them. Sometimes I still am, as I too need reminding to attend to my own needs. Because for me, the question I grew up with in my head was not, “Why didn’t you go take care of that?” it was, “Why did you go?”
If I can still struggle to engage in the healthcare system, even with my health insurance, my car, and my spouse who regularly reminds me that we are adults and that means going to the doctor, how difficult is it for people who don’t have the bootstrap mentality but who do face very real and significant barriers with access? Throughout my work as a clinician, a supervisor, and in working in direct care and for the payer, I see myself as someone who helps people identify barriers, both those in the exterior world and in the inner world of one’s mind. My work is to help identify and then figure out how to help someone overcome that barrier. I also see myself as an advocate for clients and clinicians, and that includes myself, as we providers do the hard work of caring for others. Because sometimes it is important to slow down and ask for what we need, when we need it. Even if we learned the opposite lesson growing up.
This is what I carry with me as I remember the narrow valleys and winding rivers of western Montana.
And this is what calls me to my work.
Lexy Kliewer, LCSW, is a clinical innovation manager for CareOregon. Through her participation with the Relational Leadership Institute at Oregon Health & Science University, Lexy has been a thought partner (including bringing Relational Leadership to her team at CareOregon) and active member of the Intend Health Strategies community.
Explore related articles:
Story and Narrative Leadership are foundational to individual and team transformation. In the latest in an inspiring series from our Relational Leadership community, Lexy Kliewer shares her story.