Sully Sullenberger: Lessons from My Hero

Brian with Sully Sullenberger at this fall's Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival in California

Brian with Sully Sullenberger at this fall's Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival in California


This week on White Coat Black Art, I talk about some of the amazingly good things that have happened since I delivered a TEDxToronto talk more than a year ago in which I confessed to more than one medical error and encouraged my colleagues to do the same.  When my talk was posted at, it went viral. As a result, I've had the great fortune to meet some incredible people who are working hard to make health care safer.  Perhaps the most remarkable is retired pilot Captain Chesley Sully Sullenberger, whose heroics aboard US Airways flight 1549 on January 15, 2009, saved all 155 passengers and crew on board. To hear an extended version of my conversation with Sullenberger, click on the link below.

As a result of my TED talk and my book 'The Night Shift:  Real Life in the Heart of the ER', a few months back, I received an invitation to give a speech at the Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival in California.

There were many amazing presenters at the event, including Dr. Robert Ballard, the undersea explorer who found the Titanic, Kathryn Stockett, author of the runaway bestseller 'The Help', New York Times columnist David Brooks, and many others.  But the guy I really wanted to meet was Sully Sullenberger - not just because he's a great American hero - but because he's become a passionate advocate for bringing the lessons of aviation safety to the world of medicine.

I hoped against hope that I could get a bit of Sully's time at the conference.  Not surprisingly, he's a very busy guy - literally running from speech to speech, writing and promoting his books, making sure a movie version of his rescue stays as true as possible to the actual story. And, it turns out, he's a safety consultant in health care.

When I asked Sully's publicist for an interview, she said she'd do her best, but pointed out that he would arrive at the Festival late and leave well before it ended.  I fretted about whether or not I was going to get a chance to speak with him.

I needn't have worried.  Sully is what we call a mensch.  He is thoughtful, kind, focused and reflective.  On stage at the Festival, he mesmerized the audience retelling a story I have no doubt he's told thousands of times.  More than that, he spoke honestly of how the rescue and the fame thrust upon him as a result have changed his life in ways that are clearly not always to the benefit.

Off stage, he was unfailingly polite and attentive with the multitude of  well-wishers, autograph seekers and photo takers. 

After both of us gave our speeches, it was time for Sully to sit down for our interview.  I asked for 15 minutes; Sully gave me a riveting 27 minutes - the vast majority of which you can listen to here. 

Sully's lessons for health care professionals like me could not be clearer.  In the interview, he said health care is where aviation was fifty years ago in terms of patient safety.  He urged us to learn the lessons of safety in the air and apply them in hospitals - beginning with an National Transportation Safety Board-style of organization with the power to investigate medical errors and to disseminate solutions.

When I told him that Dr. Teodor Grantcharov of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto is developing a 'black box' patterned after the flight data recorded found on commercial aircraft, he flashed a grin that said "now you're getting it."

We have a long way to go.  With the help of people like Sully, perhaps we can catch up in creating a culture of patient safety.

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