At age 27, Deb experienced a brain aneurysm. It was completely unexpected and changed her life.

In this post, Deb reflects on how she used her strengths to recover from her brain aneurysm and re-engage in her community and work.

Deb’s top 5 themes from the CliftonStrengths Assessment:

Learner | Responsibility | Connectedness | Achiever | Arranger

Deb, could you please describe the overall context before your aneurysm?

I was a PhD student studying the relationship between donor characteristics and red cell storage quality. I was intellectually stimulated and challenged with my doctoral research.

Outside of school, I volunteered weekly at the Vancouver Crisis Centre and worked as a graduate facilitator at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology.

I cycled everywhere and was training for my second marathon so was in great shape.

Then, in December of 2017, a brain aneurysm changed everything.

Thankfully, you recovered from your surgery. As you think about your strengths, how do you feel these have helped you in your journey since then?

Achiever, I call her Captain Deb, kicked in immediately. I was eager to get well and did everything within my control to accelerate my recovery so that I could return to “normal”. One key practice I adopted was tracking everything I could measure. For example, I kept tabs on the number of hours I slept, my energy levels throughout the day, my sensitivity to light and sound, and my ability to converse and remain attentive to others given my reduced capacity to process information. Tracking this information allowed me to see how I was progressing.

Arranger also quickly took control of the situation. I had to create structures and boundaries to better manage my energy level so that I didn’t inadvertently slow my recovery. For example, I had to arrange my environment and ways of interacting with people to manage my limited energy. This meant, for example, that prior to having a friend visit, I spent time in silence and in the dark or took a nap. As well, asking for and receiving help with daily tasks were critical to preserving what little energy I had to take care of myself, both mentally and physically.

Responsibility: Prior to my surgery, high responsibility looked like prioritizing my responsibility to others; I was rewarded for being highly results-driven and efficient in delivering quality work. However, my Responsibility theme, or Lieutenant Deb, had to quickly change course: I had to shift away from being responsible to others and towards being responsible to and for myself during my recovery. It meant excusing myself from social interactions when the allotted time was up, resisting the urge to make progress on my dissertation, and recalibrating my own expectations around my rehabilitation progress.

Connectedness helped me see that this experience had happened for a reason. For me, connectedness is about taking perspective to find meaning, purpose, and/or the hidden curriculum in life – I have to look in a different direction to find the door that has now opened for me. My Connectedness theme, however, came much later in my recovery. When it showed up, it allowed me to experience grief for losing what my life had been prior to the aneurysm. It was such a powerful and liberating moment that a sense of acceptance of what is now my life took the place of grief almost immediately. It also allowed me to appreciate the gift that this abrupt change has brought me: a renewed awareness that my defaults don’t always serve me in leading a value-aligned life.

Learner: I had to re-learn a lot of things throughout my recovery. One of these was to become a human “being” rather than human “doing”. I tend to be very outcome-driven; but, in my 2.5 year (and counting) recovery process, I am cultivating a new default of being in relationship with myself and others. Rather than always seeking efficiency or being laser-focused on the product/outcome, I am practicing slowing down and being more process- and relationship-focused in my approach to work and life. Another big learning step was asking for and gratefully receiving help (e.g., coaching and counselling).

Deb running & Deb with bike

If you had to pick 1 favourite strength (among your top 5), what would it be and why?

Connectedness takes the cake! It technically allows me NOT to have to choose one, because the top five strengths are all connected.

In the context of my recovery, my Connectedness theme enabled me to simultaneously attend to the granular and the big picture. The different perspectives that this strength offered made it easier for me to accept what is and feel more grounded in uncertainty. Connectedness also reminded me that my strengths are double-edged swords and the appropriate use of my strengths in various contexts is critical for me to lead a fulfilling and value-aligned life.

Today, I am much more intentional in reflecting on how I am applying my strengths (and whether I need to reign in Captain and Lieutenant Deb). I think this was one of the key lessons of this experience’s hidden curriculum and I am sure that I will discover new learnings as I continue to recover and make sense of this near-death yet life-giving experience.

Photo credit: Paul Joseph (feature image)


Deb Chen, PhD weaves her scientific research background and educational development experiences to promote the responsible conduct of research. She is an educator, facilitator, and certified organizational coach. In her spare time, Deb loves to cycle, run, hike, garden, read, and experiment with new recipes.

You can connect with Deb on LinkedIn.


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