I’m Not the Hero of My Story

By Kelsey McFaul    

Medical doctor Preston Campbell on the effort to cure cystic fibrosis and empowering others

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” –John 15:5

“Branches aren’t producing; they’re letting the vine—God—flow through them. And I think that’s the critical relationship that puts everything else into perspective for me.”

From his introduction to cystic fibrosis in medical school to his current role as president and CEO of the Cystic Fibrosis (CF) Foundation, Preston Campbell, M.D., sees himself as a conduit for the empowerment and care of others.

“When I was in medical school in the late ‘70s, I was a counselor at a University of Virginia summer camp for medically handicapped children. At the end of that summer, I said that I’d really like to focus on CF, and my friends said, ‘That’s impossible, there just aren’t enough people with CF.’”

A progressive, genetic disease causing persistent lung infections and limiting breathing ability, cystic fibrosis affects over 70,000 people worldwide. In the United States, approximately 1,000 new cases of CF are diagnosed each year. At the time of Preston’s first interest and his friends’ discouragement, few people with CF lived to adulthood. Today, more than half the CF population is over 18.

But Preston didn’t take no for an answer. He completed residency and chief residency at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and, with his wife, Elaine, earned a diploma from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Then they spent several years in Haiti, setting up pediatric and community health programs. When the time came to return to the United States, the job Preston had lined up wasn’t available, and he returned to Vanderbilt.

“And through a number of God-driven things, I became the director of the CF program there. Though I was very successful in my other roles, I decided to do it because of my experience in medical school and because I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Preston hadn’t become a pediatric pulmonologist yet, which was standard for the position. Nevertheless, he began travelling the country, visiting other CF programs and learning best practices.

“When I started at Vanderbilt, there were 30 patients, and at the end of the first year there were 60. The next year there were 120 and the year after that 240.”

Within five years, Preston received his pediatric pulmonologist training and the Vanderbilt program grew to over 300 patients, an expansion that put Preston on the radar of the CF Foundation. In 1998, he was recruited to be the CF Foundation’s executive vice president of medical affairs, where he oversaw the research, drug discovery and development, and clinical care programs.

“I’m wired as a very analytical person and kind of a control freak…and if I’m honest, I like to be that person who weighs in with the great idea and sort of solves everyone else’s problems.”

But as a leader committed to stewardship, Preston realized that mentality could limit the potential of those around him, not to mention his own growth.

“People would come to me with issues that were clearly in their domain and say, ‘Preston, what do you want me to do?’ And I began to say, ‘Realistically, I see you as the expert in this field and the last thing I want to do is tell you what I would do. I want you to go think about it and come back with your thoughts and we can discuss it together.’”

He admits that this approach can be challenging, especially for leaders who feel both responsible for their organization’s success and a strong sense of identity in their role.

After 17 successful years as CF Foundation vice president, Preston began to feel it was time to move on. In an effort to ensure the medical program was in good hands, he recruited the best and brightest members of the CF clinical and research community to the Foundation.

“If I’m successful in stewarding them, I thought, they have to grow and take things to an even higher level than I did. My role is not to be the smart guy but to empower others. But to be honest, it’s very threatening because a lot of your identity is tied to that role.”

As it turned out, the CF Foundation asked Preston to become president and CEO in 2015. Today, he oversees 670 CF Foundation employees and a yearly budget of $300 million (read our follow up blog post on Preston to learn more).

“The hero of this story is not me. All of these things are kind of remarkable when you think about how it worked out, because we never designed it that way. I really believe this is all God’s doing.”

Now, Preston’s approach to stewarding his employees extends foundation-wide.

“My idea of success is how prepared we are as a Foundation to enter into this next year and, when it’s time, without me. At some point my success will be measured, I believe, by the success of those who follow and not by what I have accomplished.”

Acting as a conduit, or the branches, contributing to something larger than oneself is also a theme in the CF community at large.

“It’s not just the CF Foundation or me. Globally, the CF community has been collaborative and focused on making a difference together. It is a unique community, very diverse, but bound together by a desire to work together to ultimately cure CF.”

When Preston first became involved in CF, the median predicted age of survival was 18 years of age. In 2017, it’s 41 years.

“Looking forward, with new drugs coming out in the next couple of years, we can expect most people with CF, 95 percent, will live long, full, productive lives. But we won’t stop until we reach 100 percent.”

The CF medical community, like Preston, experiences great success thanks to collaboration and empowerment. Even as they work to provide people with CF full and productive lives, their results have much to do with working together, without regard for credit or prestige. Principles of stewardship are helping enrich and save lives.

“Compared to where the CF community was in the 1950s, it’s quite frankly a miracle. I think it’s the most amazing story in medicine today.”

The second half of this interview titled “Flying Free” was published on November 2, 2017. To read it, please click here.

Kelsey McFaul    

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