I just spent a week on a sailboat getting certified to sail a sloop-rigged, auxiliary powered 30′-45′ sailboat during a multi-day cruise upon inland/coastal waters. So basically, my husband and I took a vacation to go sailing in the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest and got some sailing lessons along the way. I can honestly say that everything that could go wrong on our vacation did go wrong, and that it was still one of the best vacations in memory.
Our captain and sailing instructor for the cruise was Captain Margaret Pommert. Capt. Pommert (she let us call her “Margaret”) was the single most professional woman with whom I have ever worked. And I know some pretty heavy hitters, from esteemed judges to presidents of the Florida Bar to law school deans to legal rock stars and badass women lawyers.
Here’s what happened: Margaret was a little ill when we left the dock. She seemed fine but mentioned feeling tired. She was nauseated overnight but racked that up to some bad seafood. She limped through two full days of class before she waved a white flag and admitted that it was serious. We thought she had a burst appendix, but it turned out to be a very severe kidney infection. She was given IV antibiotics and returned to the boat to finish our class.
The entire time, she only expressed concern for her students and for the boat we chartered. We were her responsibility. She was the captain, and it was on her if anything happened. So, shivering with fever and wrapped in blankets, she monitored and coached while my husband motored us at night from the state park where we had been anchored to the nearest emergency clinic several miles away. She arranged for a slip at the nearby marina, arranged for another instructor to meet us at the dock, and arranged for a wheelchair and a taxi to take her to the clinic so that we did not have to do anything more than get her there. Once there, she guided us on docking the boat since we had not had that part of the class yet. She even contacted the sailing school from the hospital in case they needed to send another instructor. All while she was aware that she might be dying.
Let me say that again: She made sure WE were taken care of even though SHE might be DYING.
Now, I do not condone the working through illness thing. It’s usually not worth it and it usually does not help anyone for you to go to work sick. In fact, usually, you end up being Typhoid Mary and getting the whole office sick, dragging the rest of the firm down with you. It is, however, sometimes unavoidable. I think that being stuck on a sailboat offshore, miles from the nearest hospital, might just be one of those times.
The easy thing would have been to ask for a Coast Guard evacuation to take her to the emergency clinic and let the sailing school figure out what to do with us and how to recover the boat. Margaret decided that she could hold on until we returned from our hiking trip onshore and motor back to port, and then she made sure we knew how to do what we needed to do and that we were comfortable doing it. She assessed our abilities first and decided it was worth the risk. She set up her students to succeed. We had to function as a team, and she knew which roles to assign to us to make that work. We handled the emergency and felt like heroes, but really Margaret was the hero.
After getting treatment, Margaret came back aboard and kept teaching us. Not only was she recovering and not at her best, we also had electrical problems, other minor illnesses and injuries, and other little things that went wrong. You would never have known anything went wrong by watching Margaret. She made it feel like all was going according to plan as she shifted strategies and class schedules and made sure we got what we needed out of the class.
One definition of professionalism occurred to me when I was watching Margaret: professionalism requires that the professional put her best interests aside when it is in the best interests of her client. That is what Margaret did, over and over again. She looked for opportunities to instruct, opportunities to correct, and opportunities to foster independence in our skills. She also took as many naps as she could without jeopardizing those opportunities.
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