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MUSC Annual Report 2011-2012

Saladin Not Afraid to Take Risks

Lisa K. Saladin, Dean of the College of Health Professions, almost died last year.

She says it matter of fact, a tight smile playing at the corners of her mouth. As one of three female deans at MUSC, she hasn't gotten to where she is being afraid of risks. Saladin, Ph.D., who is trained as a physical therapist, enjoys two-week backpacking jaunts to decompress from the stress of her work. It'll be a long time before she'll forget her latest trip. She was hauling her 50-pound backpack from Chamonix France to Zermatt Switzerland on a hiking trip with her husband Dr. Michael Saladin.

About 1,500 feet up, they looked down on a glacier from their 8-inch wide ledge on the trail. Saladin faced a vertical wall with two ascending ladders. Hikers have to make a short jump from one to the other.

Despite the knowledge that a fall from this height would likely result in death, she reminded herself that she'd been told even grandmothers had made the climb.

"I looked at it and thought maybe Swiss ones."

Lisa Saladin backpacking in Switzerland
Saladin made the climb, did the jump and found herself dangerously dangling by a hand. "I misjudged the weight of my pack and how much it would cause me to sway in the opposite direction. I had my closest near death experience where I really thought this was it. I was hanging with one arm, and I had to use every bit of strength I had to get my feet grounded and get my other arm on."

Though she has had flashbacks about the moment, she doesn't let it stop her. Her next trip will be to South America to explore Patagonia. "It's about the challenge. I want to prove that I can do something different every year."

That mantra plays out in her career as well.

She became dean of the college August 2011, after serving a year in an interim position, so she knew what to expect.

"It's a challenge every day. It's a steep learning curve, but I'm very much enjoying it. The environment is changing around us as far as funding goes."

The dean selection committee praised her especially for her collaborative approach to decision making. When asked what she wants most for the college, she answers quickly that it is the goals that have been set up collectively and fall into seven different areas ranging from research to faculty and staff recruitment and mentoring.

Being trained in a team concept kind of care, she has seen how that approach in management can get the best results. She encourages people to challenge her on a regular basis. That's how the best ideas get born, she said.

An area that needs to be strengthened in the college is mentorship, which occurs on a kind of hit or miss practice that she would like more structured. Some people complain that mentorship just trains staff, and then they leave. She disagrees. "I would rather grow and develop a faculty member who leaves than ignore someone here who stays and is miserable. My advice is — across the board look for people who strive to do things well and strive to promote them in every way possible."

One of her proudest accomplishments, other than her numerous teaching awards, is becoming dean. Five years ago it wasn't even a goal, but Mark S. Sothmann, Ph.D., became dean of the college in 2007, and she was given opportunities to have more input and influence in the college.

"I hadn't thought of it as an opportunity until Mark came. I guess he saw something in me. I do have a head for budgets and figures and looking at big pictures and analyzing data. He mentored me and offered some opportunities to test the water in administration in higher levels than I had been allowed before.”

Saladin said it was an incredibly rewarding experience, one she tries to pay forward. She feels that women especially need mentorship.

"Competition among females is so intense and so hurtful that we often don't build each other up and help each other move through. Most of my ability to move forward has been from male administrators."

Her advice to managers is to build everyone up and look for potential leaders.

"Look to help women because I think we are disadvantaged. We as women have been part of the system that disadvantages other women to move through the system. So can we remove some of that competition? Can we remove some of the harsh criticism that seems to be leveled at females who try to move into leadership positions? Can we level the playing field because I don't think we have a level playing field now."

Having more diversity, whether gender or ethnicity, makes for a better administration. She likes that six of MUSC's college deans now are female and feels it will have a good impact on MUSC's campus.

"We all have very different styles, and I like that. It's basically demonstrating that a female can be a good leader and an accepted leader with very different styles. People need to be open to exploring that sometimes one leadership style might be good in a setting, in one college, in one time frame. I don't think we were put in these positions because we are all females. I think we were put in these positions because we were the right person, in the right time at the right place."

Raised to enjoy the fresh air and the outdoors, Saladin relishes her Canadian and Lithuanian roots. Both of her parents were born in Lithuania. Her mother's family left their belongings and escaped during World War II with just an ox cart. Many of her relatives still live there in very poor conditions. "In some ways, I feel very blessed. If not for an ox cart, I could be living in Lithuania and not had the advantages that I have had. At the same time, I have gained a lot from that background and perspective seeing how they live and what they appreciate."

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada, Saladin remembers her grandmother coming to enjoy summers with her. They'd pick mushrooms or go fishing. It's where she realized her love of the outdoors.

She also loved science and art and thought she wanted to go into architecture, but when she enrolled she found out that it wasn't what she expected. An accidental visit to a career fair with a friend led to her fascination with physical therapy. She liked how it seemed to combine art and science and working with people.

She received her bachelor's degree in medical rehabilitation physical therapy and a master's of science degree in anatomy from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Her doctor of philosophy degree in physical therapy was earned from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Following her husband to MUSC in 1990, Saladin began moving up within the ranks of the College of Health Professions. When she became dean last year, she was asked whether she wanted to keep teaching or not. Loving the challenge of motivating her 120 students to learn the intricacies of neurotherapy, Saladin chose to keep teaching.

"Not all deans choose to do it, but I'm going to keep doing it because I love to do it and it keeps me connected with students and faculty. It's a way to stay connected. I love the nurturing part — watching someone grow and seeing the lights come on when you  each a very difficult topic. I teach neuroscience. It's not the easiest topic. I like to find all kinds of creative ways to teach it and reach students with different learning styles."

Saladin has been awarded three University Teaching Excellence awards, been designated a Master Teacher by the MUSC Board of Trustees and is the recipient of the national Dorothy E. Baethke-Eleanor J. Carlin Award for Excellence in Academic Teaching.

She likes to see students get as excited as she is about the whole concept of neuroplasticity and how therapy can change someone's brain.

"I love to hear someone saying that they want to be a neurotherapist after having had the class. Motivating them, exciting them, challenging them and watching them grow are the components I love about teaching."

She also tries to impart to students that they will have to take risks to win battles personally and professionally. She recalls being involved in a legislative battle that was important to her professionally, but that pitted different health care providers against each other. It would have been safer to not take a vocal stand. "I learned 'stick to your guns'.  I basically told the dean at the time that I'm not stopping. This is incredibly important to our profession. There are risks.  When you take a stand, you take risks. You have to assume the risks that go with it. You will engage opposition and risks."

What keeps her going are the rewards.  She loves being in a profession that allows people to have less pain, more function and a better quality of life. She starts off each course she teaches with a real story about a patient.

"It's a patient who against all odds and maybe against all the knowledge at the time not only survived but to watch them for the first time take that first step and to feel what they feel for you and their appreciation for what you did to change their life," she said.

"When you talk about our theme, 'Changing what's possible', that's what we do, particularly as a neurotherapist. You take people who are paralyzed, comatose and some of them walk out the door. To watch that in progress - to be part of that - to me that is what makes me tick."




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