I Am a Sum of My Parts

Sep 22, 2020 | Motivation

I’m a sum of my parts, and my career has rolled out into an odd mix of sales + social work.

People in business and personal circles often ask me “How did you get started as a Patient Advocate?”. I’d like to share some of my path with you today. It has been a series of realizations.

Growing up I was a gregarious and curious kid. I was a bit of a tomboy, the adventurous- explorer type. I was social, enjoyed being around others and was at times a leader. I remember using humor a lot to engage good will. 

I recall an early aptitude test, fourth grade I think, and the results of my testing showed that I had strengths in “Persuasion” and “Service”. Looking back those strengths became absolute themes in my life.

When it came time for college I and my “persuasion and service” migrated over to the liberal arts arena to see where my fit might be. In the mid-to-early ’70s they were still very few women, 6 by my count, entering the School of Business at mu university. My life would have been markedly different had I answered that call, however I and the majority of females ended up in the schools of social sciences, teaching or nursing. For me the first result was a Bachelor of Science in Social Work.

Once out of college I entered into the Social Work field, and with my crusader cape on I was determined to help people. I was “All Theory and No Lab” as they say. My first job was in a group home for teen girls with behavioral problems and my second was a position as a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor. Having no idea of how to set work-life boundaries (and thus taking took my work home in my head and my heart) I tried hard to push the system. I expected results too fast. 

I’d had that feedback in college (I can still hear the voices of professors and see the comments in my record: “Nancy expects results too soon, is unrealistic.”). I found my expectation and lack of results to be very frustrating in the “real work world”. And so while sitting in a very good state government job and only able to move at glacier speed I HIT THE WALL. I burned out. Next would follow a series of jobs as I repeatedly tried to find my FIT and do some good in the world.

I toggled back and forth between jobs, looking for something that eluded me. For years. 

Was it money? Prestige? Security? Challenge? Upward mobility? Those were all the things that I saw everyone else pursuing. When I achieved them, why then was I not happy?  If I were in sales I missed providing a service. If I were in service I missed the buzz of business development. I simply wanted to make good things happen for people.

I backed into some jobs and tried to make them fit or make myself fit them. At times I ran from jobs and not to them.

Later in my career hung out a shingle doing some sales consulting. I thought I was totally overpaid for working part time and doing something I already knew. There was not a lot of learning on my part, no seeking, and nothing to quench.  The consulting part of it seemed to make it service-like and I justified it that way.

Years passed and as my aging parents needed more assistance I moved closer to them. Hoo Boy, Social Work was surely the Order of the Day at that time, and was later the genesis for the agency I own today. My sister and I saw gaping needs: Care issues, insurance policy debacle, housing changes > all of which drove me to learn more. It was a mess…and if you “mess” with my family, well, then it’s personal.

Beam TrophyI remain grateful to this day that my employer at the time would participate in tuition reimbursement. I chose to seek additional education and pursued my Master’s work in Counselor Education. It’s amazing when you have a life of “Lab” to go with the Theory. I am proud of my 3.974 grade point average.

It was after the death of my second parent that I finally paused to take stock of me. I excelled at sales, and had a heart and skills for Social Work. I’d had tastes of each but had never achieved my Beam. There was just a feeling that my beam, my exact comfort spot was out there. I could and would find it. 

Realizing that I’d just witnessed years of unmet eldercare needs and the challenges of navigating a complex healthcare system lit a fire under me. During my entire career and from my vantage points I had not found anything that looked like REMEDY existing in the job market and so I decided to create that opportunity. I’d use my weird mix of sales + social work and create a service that would fill a need.

This is how I found and climbed onto my BEAM. 

I transitioned into a new industry of Professional Patient Advocacy. I founded and still own today an agency called NAVIGATE NC. We provide patient advocacy and care management services primarily in eldercare and also serving folks with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s, MS, brain injury and more. 

A big part of my personal Patient Advocacy has been to educate and to speak publicly.  I’m fortunate to be able to speak on topics such as health advocacy, patient safety, and communication. I’ve been pleased and challenged as an Adjunct Instructor for both Duke and NC State universities within their OLLI programs (OSHER Lifelong Learning Institutes).

Here’s how it all fits in, this odd mix of Sales + Social Work:

I sell, every day (intangibles, a service, too, that are a harder sale in my opinion). I sell in that I must represent the burgeoning field of Patient Advocacy and my own agency NAVIGATE NC and what we do. 

I sell because I now have to procure clients and position the benefit of my services as remedy and solution to our clients’ problems. I sell to connect, and engage.

There is a ton of social work that comes with that remedy, so I’m happy. The social work parts will come in the form counseling, providing real solution, using knowledge and expertise and yes, I do help people. In addition, there are both elements of that strange mix of Sales + Social Work in both teaching and the speaking opportunities.        

Just as was predicted by the grammar school aptitude tests: I can persuade and I can serve.

We are all the sum of our parts. Our talents. Our experiences. And our hearts.

There has been another realization during this time, one of purpose & legacy.

All during my career I’d been pursuing meaningful work and I do believe that I performed some. It took me until my mid-50s to realize, truly realize that Sales + Social Work would indeed be the absolute fit for me.

Also in my 50s I noticed a distinct and compelling shift in my thoughts and orientation toward purpose, and legacy.  I contemplated “What is it that was I placed here to do? What is my reason and how can I contribute?” For the first time in my working years the end of a traditional career came into view. I then clearly realized: I am NOT done yet.

Now I have found and I am on my Beam (can you imagine anything better than that??). 

The purpose and legacy parts are works in progress. I will continue to create my path as I go. I have talent, experience and heart. And my industry, Patient Advocacy, is screaming for all three!

I am a Sum of My Parts, we all are. My challenge to you today is that you give some thought to the sum of your parts. 

What are your talents?
How have your experiences molded you?
Where is your heart, is it in keeping with your work and life?

What is, or where is, your Beam?

We are all a sum of our parts.

Nancy Ruffner


Nancy Ruffner is a Patient Advocate – Consultant – Coach offering services for patients and advocates alike. Contact Nancy if help is needed inside the patient journey or if as a provider you’d like to more confidently reach the people who need your services. Nancy gladly offers her comeuppance and expertise when working inside the profession to help both client and professional to connect and achieve their goals.