Setting Goals in Healthcare: How a Tufts Field Hockey Alum Transitioned Away From the Sport That Raised Her To Find Purpose in Impacting the Healthcare System

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Rachel Gerhardt came into Tufts with an unparalleled passion for Field Hockey. As the daughter of a field hockey coach, Rachel was around the game 24/7. When you speak to her, she’ll be the first to tell you that field hockey runs in her blood. Now six years removed from the game and the National Championship she ended her career on, she reflects on the transition. For someone who was practically raised in the sport, starting her career and moving past field hockey wasn’t easy.

As dedicated as she was to field hockey, she’s found a new motivation to guide her career in healthcare. She’s spent the last six years navigating the space between Boston Children’s Hospital, a Masters in Public Health at Boston University, and now Johns Hopkins Medicine. We spoke with Rachel about the lessons she learned from field hockey, what it was like giving up the sport she grew up on, and the new ambitious goals she has set for herself in healthcare.

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Your connection to Field Hockey runs deep. Can you describe why it’s so unique?

I grew up with a field hockey stick in my hand, literally. While many start to play the sport in middle school or high school, I was fortunate to have a mom who coached field hockey. My mom started coaching and teaching physical education right out of college in Worcester, MA at a K-12 school where she still works today, nearly 40 years later. My family lived across the street from the school, so my older brother and I grew up playing on the athletic fields and in the gym. I used to spend my time after school out on the field with her team. I was six years old, warming up her goalie before a game and watching the team go through drills, all with my field hockey stick in hand.

I fell in the love with the sport, especially when my mom became my coach. Everyone always always asked me what it was like for my mom to coach me; it truly only made our bond closer. We spent every night sitting at the kitchen table, debriefing practice or the game. I was also lucky to have a supportive dad and brother, who often don’t get enough credit when it comes to my athletic journey! It soon became clear that field hockey was my true passion and I knew I wanted to continue to play in college. 

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What life lessons did you learn as a competitive collegiate athlete?

Field hockey is truly in my blood and the passion I have for it has carried me a long way. Along with developing my work ethic, being an athlete my whole life taught me so much more about how to work with other people, how to be part of a team, when to step up and lead, and when to step back and listen. I learned how to manage my emotions, and lead a group of people towards a common vision. Building relationships and connecting with others is inherent to the success of a team. Besides this, one of the most important lessons I learned was how to respond when things don’t go your way. 

Is there an example of something not going your way that really tested you?

After a successful freshman year, I suffered an injury as a  sophomore that kept me on the sidelines for the entire season. I did not handle it well. I was forced to sit back and watch the sport I loved and there was nothing I could do. It was difficult to always mentally show up and encourage my teammates when I could not personally be out there playing. Going through that was important because it led to many conversations about what it means to be a good teammate and how to lead by example when things are not perfect. It was not easy as I faced some of those mental, self-doubt moments for the rest of my career after this experience. Still, it taught me how to persevere, never give up, rely on my teammates even more, and be persistent in my purpose and with my goals.  

For someone who lived, breathed, and slept field hockey for so long, how did you start working and thinking toward your career?

I was fortunate that my Community Health major (I double majored in Child Development and Community Health) required an internship before graduating. I was passionate about working with kids, but was not sure what setting I wanted to work in. I ended up securing an internship my senior spring at Boston Children’s Hospital with the Hale Family Center for Families, which is dedicated to supporting families through their experience at Boston Children’s. I had an amazing supervisor for this role and when I realized I wanted to continue working at the hospital after graduation, she helped me look for the right job. I started this process in February-March of my senior year.

Did you notice any advantage during the interview process being a collegiate athlete?

Absolutely! Spending most of your life as part of a team, and making it to the collegiate level, is advantageous in the interview process. I credit sports with giving me my work ethic, interpersonal skills, and general understanding of how to be a team player. Companies want team players and people that know how to successfully navigate working with others because interacting with others is bound to come up in the workplace, no matter what field you are in. Playing a sport at the collegiate level also reveals another level of dedication, commitment, and discipline that makes athletes stand out. My time playing field hockey at Tufts has come up in every job interview I have experienced so far.

Two years in to your time at Boston Children’s Hospital, you started working towards your Masters. Can you tell us more about that experience?

My first two years working at Boston Children’s Hospital taught me more than I ever could have imagined about the healthcare world and the challenges families face in navigating the healthcare system when they have a child with complex healthcare needs. I wanted to be in a position to help the patients and families I was interacting with on a daily basis and actually implement changes to the system. To do this in my field, I knew I needed a masters degree. Public health made sense for me because I care deeply about population health as well as social determinants, yet also wanted to tie this together with healthcare management. This is why I decided to pursue my MPH from Boston University School of Public Health in Health Policy & Management. 

Do you believe there are any parallels between your history in field hockey and your interest in Public Health? 

Growing up in an athletic family sparked my initial interest in health and wellness, which only matured as my field hockey career continued. I have always been drawn to the idea of living a healthy lifestyle, as well as ensuring that every person has access to the same resources I did in order to live life to their fullest potential. I recognize how lucky I was to have the opportunity to play collegiately and I know not everyone has this experience. In the public health and hospital world, I want to do everything in my power to ensure every patient has the same opportunities to pursue their dreams and passions that I did. 

Without field hockey in your life, what became your new source of motivation?

After we wrapped up our amazing senior season at Tufts on the highest note possible, (winning the National Championship!!), it was extremely hard to transition to life after sports. Field hockey filled my life for so long, and everything I did revolved around this sport. It was my identity. While it took some time to figure out, I realized that I needed to focus my energy on setting a new goal. I had to find what was important to me and what I was passionate about. I’m lucky that I realized for me this was working in a hospital and helping others. I get to show up every day and work in a place where I can hopefully make an impact, no matter how small, on a patient/family’s experience in the hospital; a place where no one wants to be. I want to do everything in my power to ensure patients receive the highest quality care and that we are doing everything possible to improve their lives. I have now set a new goal of one day working my way up to the C-Suite of a hospital; and this is now my new source of motivation. 

Now you’re an Administrative Fellow for Johns Hopkins Medicine. What does a typical work day look like for you?

There is no typical work day! This job is so much fun because we are always doing something different. We (there’s 3 of us in our first year that all moved to Baltimore in July!) rotate throughout the entire Johns Hopkins Health System and move onto a new place every 6-8 weeks. We do rotations in finance, strategy, and operations, spending time in Hopkins’ academic medical centers and community hospitals. We meet with the executive leadership of each hospital, as well as the health system president. It’s an incredible experience to meet with these executives and understand their decision-making process, but also hear their stories of how they got to where they are today. 

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Earlier you talked about having a goal of working up to the C-Suite of a hospital. Can you talk about the importance of goals in your life and what that has meant for you?

It has always been important for me to set goals throughout my life because they help me stay focused on where I want to be in the future. At Tufts, we always set our goals at the beginning of each field hockey season, and we always included winning the NESCAC and winning a National Championship. While I truly believe all the stars aligned for this to happen, working towards this goal every day kept us going in practice and also drove us to focus on building our strong team dynamic. I have some pretty lofty goals of where I want my career to go and I keep these in the back of my mind. Knowing where I want to be gives me the drive and motivation to work hard to achieve these goals. I also think it is important to break down bigger goals to smaller goals along the way in order to get there. Right now, I’m in a new organization so I’m focused on meeting as many people as I can, learning what they do, and getting involved in various projects to advance my skill set. At the end of the day, I feel fortunate to be working in a profession that I am so passionate about and hope to make a difference in the way care is delivered to patients.