Julia knows firsthand that every family is unique
Meet Julia Hanigsberg, the new president and CEO of Holland Bloorview (in photo with daughter Rachel). Julia comes to us from Ryerson University, where she was vice-president of administration and finance. Here she tells us more about her own family's experience with disability and how she's learning about the hospital "from the ground up."
BLOOM: What does your experience as a parent of a child with disability add to your role here?
Julia Hanigsberg: I think it gives me a perspective on the complexity of the lives of our clients and families and a real appreciation of how every child—and every family circumstance—is unique. I think that’s even more the case in childhood disability than in other medical settings. Our client population has so many different vulnerabilities and exceptionalities and I have a real sense of that and of what families go through in trying to achieve the best opportunities for their kids.
BLOOM: Can you tell us a bit about your daughter?
Julia Hanigsberg: Rachel is 18 and we’ve been through a journey of diagnoses with her. She was born prematurely at 29 weeks and has global developmental delay. Then 15 years later there was a new diagnosis of autism. She also has some associated mental health issues like anxiety. I know that the diagnostic world for our kids is often longer and not so straightforward. There are layers, and things emerge over time as our children change. The world in which we operate is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ world.
Rachel is in high school and she’s a very typical teenager who loves YouTube and her music—very loud music—and her privacy and space and wants to be independent. Her school is a great fit and she’s very enthusiastic about starting co-op because she’s excited about the world of work. She loves to shop, so she thinks working in stores will be lots of fun.
BLOOM: What’s been the greatest challenge parenting Rachel?
Julia Hanigsberg: Two things. One is navigating the system and knowing what to do when. Knowing that you’ve explored all the possibilities, you haven’t left any stones unturned. It’s a two-edged sword because when they’re little, and even now, you don’t always know what the possibilities are. The nice thing about having a teenager is that they have their own ideas about what they want to do.
The other challenge is moving into the adult system and that transition point is a very serious concern. Rachel’s 18 now so we are right in the heart of that—thinking of what the long-term future holds. School will end and that will be an enormous point of transition for her. As long as your kid is in school you know that they’re well taken care of for a good chunk of the day. The path for my daughter after school is less clear.
I’m conscious of the fact that my experience as a parent is just one parent’s experience. For example, our experience is very different from a parent who has a child with an acquired brain injury—where in a moment everything changes for their typically developing child. I gave birth at 29 weeks and we had a long time to move into the world we were in.
I’m also very well aware of the privileges I have. English is my first language and I don’t have a job where taking half a day off for my daughter’s medical appointment isn’t an option.
BLOOM: Can you tell us about your background?
Julia Hanigsberg: I’m a lawyer by background. I think that’s a fantastic educational background for being a problem solver. You come out with a structured way of thinking about problems. Very little of my career has been spent as a traditional lawyer. I spent 10 years in the provincial government, mostly with the Ministry of the Attorney General and in the Cabinet Office doing policy and legislation-focused work. I was chief of staff to a cabinet minister so I have a broad view of the workings of government from a civil service, policy and political perspective.
Then I went to Ryerson and spent five years as the general counsel and secretary of the board and five years as vice-president of administration and finance. It gave me time to understand how big organizations work and how you make difficult decisions within the context of large organizations. One thing I took from my time as a trustee of the board at Holland Bloorview and applied at Ryerson was related to client- and family-centred care. Family leaders here are involved whenever there’s a big procurement decision. At Ryerson, we never would have involved students in that kind of decision. So when Ryerson put out a request for proposal for a new food management company I suggested we have two students on the selection committee. It was fantastic.
BLOOM: Why do you believe that social media is important in your role?
Julia Hanigsberg: Two reasons. One is giving people an opportunity to get to know me as Julia and as the CEO of Holland Bloorview and demystifying the role. People who follow me on social media and talk to me in the halls will see there isn’t a big disconnect. As much as I’m trying to meet every person, it’s hard to do that, so I want to find other ways to expand how I connect with the team that works here and with clients and families. The other is to be part of the ecosystem of sharing of quality Holland Bloorview information that I can disseminate out to the world. My experience with social media is that you frequently make connections online that result in incredibly valuable personal and professional connections. There is a richness there that not everyone appreciates.
BLOOM: Research shows that parents of kids with disabilities are at greater risk of depression and anxiety and physical problems. What strategies have you used in your own life to take care of yourself?
Julia Hanigsberg: It’s a struggle that every parent has, period, and our parents have much more complex families. The other area we read about is resilience—in our children but also in ourselves. Building up capacity for resilience is like building up a muscle. I think that’s quite inspiring and something to be really thoughtful about.
A lot of what we do personally is the normal stuff—eating well and exercise—because you know you’re going to have to absorb and do more. We’re very lucky in that we have a lot of family around us. Respite is so important. We do a lot of that here at Holland Bloorview for our clients and families. In my family, we have nephews and nieces and grandparents who are really involved. So my husband and I can go away for a weekend, pretty infrequently, but we can do that. The support of family also means we can spend time with our other kids. I have 14-year-old twins. So it’s building resilience for the whole family.
BLOOM: How can the hospital best support parents so they feel able to advocate for their child?
Julia Hanigsberg: I’ve been really impressed with our Family Leadership Program. I think the hospital’s investment in the leadership of families is extraordinary and they can take that into the rest of their lives. When I joined the board of trustees the family advisory used to meet in the boardroom but now they meet in the conference centre because they can’t fit in the boardroom. We’ve trained over 100 family leaders. There are also more informal ways like our Parent Talk groups where parents can create networks that help them learn.
BLOOM: What would you like our parents to know about your plans for the hospital?
Julia Hanigsberg: It’s too early to talk about plans for the hospital. Right now I’m learning and listening and focusing on having experiences as the way I learn. People have been incredibly generous in sharing clients and families with me, encouraging me to participate in clinical team meetings and huddles, to help me better understand how the hospital works from the perspective of families and our extraordinary team of staff. My orientation is to learn the place from the ground up, not from sitting in this office.
BLOOM: What do you see as the hospital’s greatest challenge? Greatest strength?
Julia Hanigsberg: I don’t think it would surprise anyone to know we’re challenged financially, and, but for money, there’s more we would do. Space is an emerging challenge. We’re not there yet, but at a certain point we’ll want to do things and be limited by the lack of space. I think the hospital has made smart, economical and efficient use of its resources.
Everyone in the place has huge ambition and that’s an enormous strength. Everywhere I go, people want to do more and better and I think my role is to find the path that allows them to achieve their ambitions for Holland Bloorview. I don’t need to set out the ambitions. Talk to anyone who works here and they’re excited about what they do and have a huge vision for what that could be.
For a window into Julia's first weeks at the hospital follow her on her blog or on Twitter @Hanigsberg.