Jeff Haanen

Two weeks ago I had coffee with Dr. Gary VanderArk. Brimming with energy and curiosity at nearly 80 years old, he revealed to me the secret of satisfying work.

Dr. Gary VanderArk (left) won the 2012 CEBA Bill Daniels Business Ethics Award.

Dr. Gary VanderArk (left) won the 2012 CEBA Bill Daniels Business Ethics Award.

One person described Dr. VanderArk as “a giant of a man.” He was right. For over 40 years, Dr. VanderArk has been a neurosurgeon, and he still serves as a clinical professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Colorado. Yet his stature in the Colorado health community has grown exponentially because of his tireless efforts on behalf of the medically underserved.

Dr. VanderArk created Doctor’s Care, a system of clinics staffed by doctors donating their time and services to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The program serves over 1,500/year and has contributed more than $30 million in free care. In 1997 he also started the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved, an organization with the mission of serving patients without health insurance. In addition, he founded the Colorado Neurological Institute (CNI) and almost singlehandedly saved CU Medical School’s Residency in Neurosurgery Program. He also serves on more than a dozen nonprofit boards.

As I sat down for coffee with the slender giant, I was initially a bit intimidated. As someone interested in the topic of faith and work, what do you say to somebody who is the embodiment of integrating faith and work, and has been doing it with unprecedented excellence longer than I’ve been alive?

But as we began to chat at the Denver Seminary (another organization on which he serves on the board) student lounge, my fears were quickly put to rest. He shared with me the story of how he became interested in neuroscience as a child (the movie Magnificent Obsession gave him a desire to be a doctor) and how a mentor deeply influenced his early career.

After chatting like old friends for a half hour (Who am I that he would even meet with me?), I asked him a question that was burning in the back of my mind. “When you were founding Doctor’s Care, how did you convince dozens of doctors to give hundreds of volunteer hours to those without insurance?” To ask busy physicians to give so much seemed like an impossible feat.

He pondered the question for a moment, and responded with a quote from Jesus. “If we really believe, as Jesus said, ‘It is better to give than to receive,’ then that means when we give to others we receive greater blessing than when we receive. So when I ask doctors to give their time or serve on a board, I know that I’m asking for something that will bring them joy. I ask boldly because I know that my asking will bring them satisfaction and happiness when they give to others.”

Dr. Gary VanderArk reversed a paradigm in my mind. When you ask somebody for a donation, either of time, skill, or money, you are “costing” them whatever they ask. Or so I thought. In Dr. VanderArk’s mind, when you ask, you are giving them a great reward, the satisfying joy of giving to another.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously led to a boldness to ask others to serve those in need.

Today Dr. VanderArk is “retired,” yet he still teaches 7 classes of medical students at CU Medical School, and serves on more boards than can be counted. The secret to his brimming energy and fruitful career, is simple: give. Giving, and asking others to give, is how he multiplies his joy – and how he became a “giant of a man” in the state of Colorado.

Discussion question: What opportunities do you see to serve others in your field? Who are you asking to join you?


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