Social Impact Heroes: How Suzanne Ruggles of Full Circle Fund is helping to provide holistic support to patients with life-challenging illnesses
…To me, leadership is not a ‘strong arm’ approach, rather it is an attentive, finely tuned process. Leadership is the ability to not only bring a cohesive team together, it is also about finding the right ‘lane’ for each member of the team. This is important as it gives that person the opportunity to flourish individually and then this positively impacts overall. This approach was consolidated when I discovered Positive Psychology; everyone can find that sense of ‘flow’ in their working lives and it is in these periods that the greatest work is being done as a team in ‘flow’ are fully involved in what they are doing. It is beautiful to be part of a team that works like this.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Ruggles, an acclaimed designer whose clients included Hollywood actors, ambassadors, royalty and celebrities. At the height of her success, she was diagnosed with Lupus which led to major life changes. Her experiences with life-threatening illnesses encouraged her to study the science of mind-body medicine in the UK and US and ultimately led her to organize an award-winning hospital project at a London teaching hospital. She proudly established the Full Circle Fund which continues to promote the use of holistic, integrated support for patients with life-challenging illnesses. Suzanne lectures widely in schools, universities and at clinical conferences. She holds a Master of Science (MSc) in Health Sciences from St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. She currently resides in Surrey. To learn more, please visit http://www.suzanne-ruggles.com/
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the 1990s, I had a successful London based design business. My clients included royalty, ambassadors and Hollywood actors. However, in 1996 I was diagnosed with Lupus (SLE), an incurable, potentially fatal autoimmune illness. My consultant informed me that the cause was not known but he said unequivocally, it was exacerbated by stress. He added, 75% of illnesses are stress-related and urged me to find a way to control my stress. I asked him for guidance on where to go or who to contact but he replied: ‘I have no idea’. I had no idea either at that time. I had no skill set for managing my stress; I realized I was playing Russian roulette with my life.
Stress and its impact on my health had never been on my radar before. Realizing that if I didn’t have my health I didn’t have my life, I made the decision to concentrate on what my doctor had told me, and started from scratch to learn what I needed to manage my stress levels in the hope that I could find a way to co-exist with this illness. I researched, explored, and received a few therapies. My blood tests began to show what I already had begun to feel within myself; my symptoms were easing and concurrently, I felt more peaceful and more in control.
This new state of wellbeing led me to a fascination of the mind-body connection, and in due course to study Health Psychology. My newfound interest in the science of relaxation and positive psychology led me to undertake two trips to Harvard to hear firsthand of the research work of Dr. Herbert Benson MD and his team. This was where I first came across the science of the Relaxation Response and research into the effects of the brain after meditation and mindfulness. Eventually, I received a Master’s in Health Science from St George’s Medical School, University of London.
Prior to this, I had been invited to set up a project for a London hospital’s haematology unit. The aim of this project was to support patients enduring months in isolation rooms receiving intensive chemotherapy for blood cancers. We also developed the first project of its kind in the UK for patients living with debilitating inherited pain condition, Sickle Cell Disorder. At the time there was no mind-body support for patients with such life-threatening conditions at this hospital and limited awareness about its benefits in the UK. At the request of a few like-minded nurses and eventually doctors, we collected evidence and my project took flight to become an award-winning charity called Full Circle Fund Therapies for which I am the Founder and CEO. We fund a team of highly skilled practitioners who provide around 2000 treatments a year for extremely sick children and adults. Our projects are currently thriving in two large hospitals in the UK with many planned in the future, our next project which has been requested by a doctor and senior nurses is for children’s hospital in Central London.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your organization?
Immediately I came back from my first trip to Harvard and I wanted to share the Relaxation Response technique and the essence of the science which underpinned it with one of my patients who had Sickle Cell Disorder. In those days there was little interest in any non-medical approach for this patient group, however, it was known that stress was a significant trigger in the exacerbation of their symptoms known as ‘crisis’ which can lead to life-threatening consequences including organ damage and long periods of hospitalization since childhood. I was lucky as the consultant for this patient group supported me after hearing of some of the unexpected improvements in other patients’ stress and anxiety levels from a senior nurse who had observed their calm, self-composed states during invasive procedures. He told me there was an ‘ethical’ reason to continue to try to find ways to support’ his marginalized patient group with Sickle Cell. I had one patient in mind as soon as I returned who, since childhood had spent significant amounts of his life in the hospital. Now I had the science to show him that there may be benefit in practicing the Relaxation Response technique to help him cope with his condition, I wanted to share it with him and he agreed to give it a try. I was to discover that something within the technique resonated with him and he immediately adopted it and, crucially, to everyone’s surprise began practicing the technique daily. We followed his case with interest for two years, and he was able to reduce his admission rate by 56%.
On my second trip to Harvard, I shared some of the successes I was seeing with the Relaxation Response in patients with Sickle Cell Disorder and they said they had never considered it for this patient group before. What I love about this is the example of ‘never giving up’ on any one patient or any patient group. A month after I first showed this patient the technique, he came to find me at the hospital. He shared with me that he had even taught his wife the technique so that she could help him remember how to breathe when he felt a ‘crisis’ coming on. Before he said he would have automatically called an ambulance. He paused and added: ‘thank you, you have given me the chance to have my life back.’
Our work is a collaborative effort made possible in this case by a compassionate consultant, the efforts in research by Dr. Benson and his colleagues and of course a willing and motivated patient. This constellation is the essence of my charity’s vision; joined up, compassionate and collaborative. The benefits of this approach can extend far beyond the person who receives it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the very early days of my project only nurses were interested in and supported my approach: to provide allied support of medicine, underpinned by an understanding of mind-body research, and delivering this compassionate ‘whole’ person care in the most intensive hospital environments.
In those early days, the nurse in charge of the busy hematology unit rigorously assessed what I was offering and said: ‘doctors won’t understand this, we need to fly under the radar.’ This was January 2001 after all, and doctors at that time in the UK were much less aware of the role of the mind-body research in reducing stress for example, as many are today. She oversaw the ward; she knew what she wanted for her patients and recognized what was missing in the care of the whole person.
She asked that this nascent project should fly ‘under the radar’ and that she would manage and share it — when the time was right — with the medical team. We had of course not said anything about this ‘under the radar’ strategy to the patients. The medics suddenly all got to hear about it in the daily ward rounds and were regaled with countless patients saying how much it was helping with their insomnia or pain or helping to reduce their stress and increase their sense of calmness. In short, the cat was out the bag! Best laid plans and all that! From this unexpected ‘outing’, two consultants (one of whom was the hematology professor), came forward and gave their support so it turned out to be a pivotal moment after all!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We have always believed in the importance of putting the whole person at the center of any medical treatment. In our approach we are not caring for a patient with a collection of clinical tests relating to a life-threatening diagnosis), we are seeing the person first and working from there to support their spirit, their resilience as this is what they’ll need to have intact if they are to endure some of the rigors of the treatment that lies ahead. The more intensive the treatment or more life-threatening the diagnosis, the more important this aspect of our work is.
We believe wholeheartedly it is important to keep this essential element of humanity in our work — to keep a patient feeling human often when hope of survival is fading, and we achieve this alongside our many medical and nursing colleagues who share our ethos and call for us to be present in the care of their very sick patients. Our role is to help to reconnect that person through a range of mind-body interventions to where they can experience a place of stillness and locate within themselves an often profound and enduring sense of calm. To a frightened, embattled spirit, already coping with the uncertainty of a life-challenging diagnosis, side effects and their very survival, these moments of deep calm can be profoundly transformational. We call this state ‘remembered wellness’ and we witness the impact of this on our patients’ lives in our work in numerous complex areas including acute children’s medicine, cancer care, bone marrow transplantation, end-of-life care and also in four intensive care units where all these treatments are requested by medical and nursing teams.
During the current COVID 19 crisis we have now set up our Wellbeing Hub on our charity’s website to provide ongoing support and resources to support our patients and their families, but also our many hospital friends and colleagues remotely too, many of whom are on the frontline. What has been extraordinarily touching within the first weeks of launching our Wellbeing Hub, was that we started received donations from nurses thanking us for continuing to support them and their patients through the pandemic!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are so many I could share here, but one that comes prominently to mind is a young man who we had supported throughout months of intensive chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant. A short while after he had finally been discharged home, he noticed that he was losing function in his legs. He was readmitted as an emergency with progressive paralysis. After a battery of tests and scans he was diagnosed with Grade 4 (permanent) nerve damage to his spine caused by an infection to the spinal cord. He was not expected to walk again. Our team was called in immediately. This was mainly to support his mental resilience; to give him something to look forward to, to help him stay as calm as possible given his devastating prognosis, whilst the medical team stabilized his condition before being transferred to a specialist spinal injuries hospital. We put a coordinated care plan in place.
We didn’t expect our input to change his diagnosis — he was paralyzed and being stabilized. However, after a few sessions, one of our practitioners noticed an involuntary leg movement when she worked on a specific reflex point on his foot. Each subsequent day, my team noted at which point the involuntary movement occurred until one day he had a significant involuntary movement of his leg which was followed by him being able — by himself- to move his big toe. Little by little he regained sensation in his legs. He had to learn to walk again of course, and throughout he asked us to continue to be with him, to help him. His recovery took 9 months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. A few months after he was discharged home, he contacted us to say he had walked for 2.4 miles, unaided. He delighted in telling us his destination: the pub! Today, he continues to walk totally unaided.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I believe more emphasis should be placed on the role the mind-body connection can play in our wellness and in our recovery from illness. Medicine quite understandably is on the frontline, fighting fires, but many of these fires (not COVID-19 of course and some others) are caused by or exacerbated by stress. These are like small local fires which, if addressed early, have the potential to be less devastating. Take for example mindfulness, studies show how it improves sleep and improves the immune response. An awareness of the importance of the mind-body connection should and could start in schools from early childhood.
Medicine should wholly embrace an integrated approach to healthcare, one which encourages the patient to be a partner in their health. Medicine cannot be expected to ‘carry’ everything. Nor should it. It is there for the acute phase of course and for other phases, but there is so much more that ‘we’ as individuals can do if given the correct guidance. I often say we wouldn’t drive our car fast day in, day out without ever getting the car checked, so why do we expect our bodies and minds to continue relentlessly up and down the highway of life without taking time to stop, to refuel, to rest? This can be learned from an early age to help build a resilience skill set from the early years.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is not a ‘strong arm’ approach, rather it is an attentive, finely tuned process. Leadership is the ability to not only bring a cohesive team together, it is also about finding the right ‘lane’ for each member of the team. This is important as it gives that person the opportunity to flourish individually and then this positively impacts overall. This approach was consolidated when I discovered Positive Psychology; everyone can find that sense of ‘flow’ in their working lives and it is in these periods that the greatest work is being done as a team in ‘flow’ are fully involved in what they are doing. It is beautiful to be part of a team that works like this.
Full Circle has something special about it; it seems to attract just the right people at just the right time. Even in times of great challenge as in the current Covid-19 challenge, we find a way with a team that is in flow for each member. The challenge becomes part of the solution and in that space new, innovative ideas and directions can emerge. To me, leadership is about aligning the skillset in the team, for the whole to flourish. I often liken it to a small sailing boat that is crossing an ocean. The job of the Leader is first done on dry land — to assemble the right team, and then to set the coordinates for the destination. Between them, the skipper and crew work together, ‘reading’ the environment, adjusting the sails and tacking repeatedly but, together, they never forget what the destination is and every thought is about reaching that destination together for the greater good of them all. To me, this is what leadership is about; everyone part of the journey, involved in the success and finding ways to surmount challenges and, together, arrive in a safe harbor.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Look after your own health — I am a very driven person; I have entrepreneurs on both my maternal and paternal sides of the family. To have an idea, to work it through and implement it, is reasonably in my ‘lane’. Therefore, once I have had an idea, I tended to pursue it and almost never stop thinking about it. I have been known to forget to eat and work until the early hours of the morning. It was only when I had a second major illness (bacterial meningitis) which became a near-death experience, that I finally realized that I did not have the right balance at all in my life. Realizing I was more likely to die or suffer brain damage than to live was the most terrifying place to be. I spent eleven days in hospital peering over the precipice, desperately fighting to live. I was forever changed by that experience. As soon as I came home, I changed everything in my life I changed there and then what I ate and how I lived my life.
I took a lot of advice before I embarked on setting up my charity from people who I admired and trusted, this meant that I did not have a lot of gaps in my knowledge. I am a collegiate person and am not afraid to ask, therefore at every step where there has been a challenge (and there have been many), I have been able to find the right person at the right time. Therefore, I can only think of this one thing that I had wished I had been told about! Perhaps, this is why I feel so incredibly passionate about wellbeing in all its facets, being front and central in our minds from an early age. So much can be achieved when we are in a state of balance — in our minds and our bodies and in our wider lives.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Ha! Well that is easy: Look after yourself! Set up wellbeing mind-body programs including mindfulness, as well as vegetable and plant growing lessons in schools, colleges, universities, hospitals — why not!?
Wellbeing focus in hospitals is not just for patients, it is for the hospital staff too. We have always believed their wellbeing is central, much like a tuning fork. Make mind-body projects accessible at every point of a person’s timeline. Bring in the right people, the right expert voices who are exemplars in their field and who with us, share the same values and ethos.
Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two!
One: Build it and they will come. This is the unwritten motto which underlines all I have seen happen and continue to happen with Full Circle!
Two: The other comes from my good friend Eric Evans, entrepreneur, author and double bone marrow transplant recipient: In the moment of something awful are the seeds for something wonderful. However, will you recognize what it is — and most importantly, what will you do about it?
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama — can the 3 of us have a virtual lunch together? They are both amazing role models. I think we would have so much to talk about 😊
How can our readers follow you on social media?