Five questions for Donald Misch

Director, Wardenburg Health Center, CU-Boulder
Donald Misch

Donald Misch

Wardenburg Health Center on the Boulder campus operates using a version of the Golden Rule. The "do unto others" motto is something the center's director, Donald Misch, M.D., also aspires to in the rest of his live.

Misch took over the leadership role at Wardenburg in July; he's also the assistant vice chancellor for health and wellness. His responsibilities include overseeing the health center, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Office of Victim Assistance (OVA) and the Recreation Center. Much of his time is spent considering alcohol and drug abuse issues. Alcohol abuse is the No. 1 health hazard on college campuses across the country, Misch says, so it's not surprising that in college towns, it's also an issue for the community. He is collaborating with the city, county and other entities to coordinate efforts and programs that will not only help the university but the surrounding area. And he'd like to see some of those programs spread to local high schools.

Next semester, the university will roll out a campaign that Misch hopes will make a big impact on the culture of substance abuse, changing the way students view and address alcohol abusers.

Before joining CU, Misch worked in private practices as an internist and psychiatrist, spent 11 years at the department of psychiatry and health behavior at the Medical College of Georgia, and then seven years as director of the Northwestern University Health Service. He was a Carnegie Scholar and director of the Georgia Governor's Teaching Fellows Program. Universities, he says, have always been his home.

"College students are a great group of people to work with," he said. "They're young and enthusiastic, and pliable – willing to consider changes in their health and wellness behaviors. And they're smart. I've always felt comfortable in academics."

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. One of the mottos you live by is the Golden Rule. Do you have others?

I'm definitely a Golden Rule guy. I think it is a very difficult standard, one to which I aspire, that you should treat people the way you want to be treated. And my version of the health service Golden Rule is that we will try to treat your child in college as we would want our own children treated. I also endorse common sense (Voltaire: "Common sense is not so common.") and common courtesy. I also believe that leadership is a public service position. It's not about self-aggrandizement. We're responsible to and for a whole range of stakeholders. The job is about doing right by others.

2. Wardenburg offers a number of services to students: medical, women's health, sports medicine, psychological health, radiology, a lab and a pharmacy. How many students, on average, do you see and what other roles does the center play?

We have just under 70,000 visits per year. All of the services are heavily utilized, but the ones that are growing the fastest are psychological health and psychiatry, which is consistent with trends across the country, and sports medicine, which isn't surprising given how physically active our students are.

Along with diagnosis, medical treatment and psychological and psychiatric illnesses, we also serve a public health surveillance and intervention role. In a way we're our own department of public health. We work with Boulder County Public Health and the state and we're responsible for attending to and identifying infectious diseases on campus. We also promote health and wellness. The goal is to help students learn healthy ways to live their lives and those healthy coping mechanisms – physical or psychological – that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives when they are under stress or when things don't go as they hope.

We also collaborate with other academic units, for instance, people in nutrition or information technology. One of our student health board members has done a really nice study on how our electronic medical records are used on an everyday basis and whether or not the system is efficient.

3. You are working toward a number of program initiatives at Wardenburg, including the secondhand alcohol campaign and the recovery campus. What are these programs?

Here's the notion of the secondhand alcohol campaign: When I grew up in the '50s and '60s, lots of people smoked and they smoked everywhere. It really wasn't appropriate and you were not empowered to ask someone to stop smoking and not befoul your air. Now, years later, you can't smoke in hospitals, on planes, in many bars or within 15 to 25 feet of public buildings. What happened? One was data, the realization that secondhand smoke is dangerous, not just irritating. The second thing that happened was a cultural shift in which people felt increasingly empowered to say, "Whether or not you smoke is your decision, but you can't foul my air in the process."

We are in a similar situation with alcohol abuse on college campuses. There's plenty of data about how destructive abusive alcohol consumption is to those who are not the drinker: physical and sexual assault, verbal intimidation and threats, property damage, disrupted sleep and study, vomit and urine in places they shouldn't be, and the need to babysit those at risk of alcohol poisoning. The abuse of alcohol doesn't just affect the drinker, it affects everyone around them.

In many ways, we're now where we were with smoking. It's very hard for a student to step up and say, "Whether or not you drink is your business but you can't mess up my life." To do that would mean they would be ostracized by peers.

The notion of the secondhand alcohol campaign is to turn to one of the most powerful motivating forces we know – peer pressure. Instead of feeling peer pressure to drink abusively to fit in, we hope students will take the position that if you want to fit in with my group, you must drink in a way that doesn't disturb us. This is part of our attempt to change the culture of alcohol abuse on campus, at CU and across the nation. We hope to start this next semester.

Another initiative is the recovery campus. It's hard to imagine any other setting that would be worse for a recovering alcoholic than a college campus, which is typically awash with alcohol and other drugs. If recovering students are to negotiate college, they need a lot of support – financial, academic, housing. They need a community of people who know what they are going through. The Association of Recovery Schools is a movement occurring on various college campuses and the notion is to have a series of supports that enables recovering students to succeed in college.

These students also can affect the culture of alcohol abuse on campus. These are peers who can say, "Been there, done that. I was saying the same things two years ago, using the same excuses and justifications, and you know what, I'm not buying any of it. I have experience."

4. Personally, what do you find most gratifying about your job, and if you were not doing this job, what would you love to have as your avocation?

I love working with students and the many great people at CU. I'm very proud of all of our services and our great staff. A lot of people in student health are really committed to health. They see this as a calling. Many of the folks that work here have currently or have had children in college, so they know what it's like to send a child off to college and worry about them.

There are so many opportunities for great collaborations to approach problems and issues in new and creative ways that allow you to integrate ideas across domains. I love doing that.

I desperately wanted to play in the NBA. The trouble was, I wasn't that good. Other than for the fact that I was slow, weak and not a good jumper, I think I was destined to play in the NBA. My son played Division III basketball, so it's been a huge part of my life. And basketball teams have been a metaphor for how I think people should work together. Basketball and sports in general teach you a lot about life.

I still think about going to law school some day. I was admitted to law school when I was an internist and in a rare epiphany, I came to my senses and said this is nuts. You work full time in private practice and are going to go to law school? So I gave up my spot two weeks before I was scheduled to start. There's still a part of me that would love to go to law school. I would be a pretty feisty student; I really love to argue stuff.

5. What activities do you enjoy outside the office?

I enjoy reading, watching sports and classic movies. My wife and I, you can't take us into a book store. It really doesn't matter what aisle we go down, we'll just read anything. Some of what I've read or am reading include classics ("Great Expectations," "Catcher in the Rye"); politics (books on Sarah Palin and John Edwards); novels (Stieg Larsson's "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy); psychology ("The Cult of Personality Testing"), which talks about how many of the personality tests we do are utterly invalidated and probably not accurate; sports, especially on the corruption of amateur athletics (e.g., "Play Their Hearts Out"); and just about any other book from super cave exploration to dog search and rescue operations. I'll just read anything. The movers were appalled. One set of movers told my wife and me that they had never seen so many books.