Tim and Jess Lahey Have Different Professions and a Shared Commitment to Health and Well-Being | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Health Care

Tim and Jess Lahey Have Different Professions and a Shared Commitment to Health and Well-Being


Published March 2, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Tim and Jess Lahey - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Tim and Jess Lahey

For Christmas, Jess Lahey made her husband, Tim, a collage that showcases bits and pieces of their writing. There are headlines and column inches from articles Jess wrote, poems by Tim, and snippets of his essays and op-eds in the New York Times. The jam-packed collage also features a photo of Jess and their pug, taken by Tim, that appeared in a 2021 People magazine spread, along with pictures of the Charlotte couple and their two sons.

An observer could spend considerable time taking in this lively compendium of the Laheys' written work. What's with the story from the food section of the Washington Post? How about those poems by Tim, a physician who's known for writing about ethical issues in medicine?

Access to the collage is limited by its location in a bathroom at the Laheys' home. Still, a quick look reveals tantalizing clues about the couple's separate professional lives and their shared interests. Though the Laheys have distinct areas of expertise, each researches and communicates with the public about issues related to health and well-being.

Tim, 53, is the director of clinical ethics at the University of Vermont Medical Center and a professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases at UVM's Larner College of Medicine. Jess, 51, is a journalist and author whose work is informed by her career as a middle school and high school teacher. In 2015, she published the New York Times best seller The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Her latest book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence, was published last April and praised for its practical and personal approach to the subject.

"I think it's been really important for us to have our own careers and our own interests," Tim said.

In the New York Times, he's written about hospital "honor walks" in recognition of organ donors and discussed safe injection sites at hospitals for patients with opioid addiction. On health website STAT last October, Tim considered the ethics of getting a third COVID-19 vaccination when billions of people around the world had yet to receive their first. Sometimes, the Laheys share a byline, such as in the August 2020 piece they wrote for the Post, "Back to school in a pandemic: A guide to all the factors keeping parents and educators up at night."

On a recent morning, between his two Zoom meetings and before an afternoon taping of her podcast "#AmWriting," the Laheys talked with Seven Days about their work, their parallel (and sometimes intersecting) interests, and how they met.

Their son Finn, a high school senior, was home for a snow day. He put it to good use making cookies and setting his parents straight on the age of his brother, Ben, a graduate of Middlebury College. He's 23, Finn said. His parents had debated whether Ben was 21 or 22.

Jess and Tim first met in 1990 as students at a summer English program at Oxford University. She had a crush on him; he had a girlfriend.

A few years later, back in the States, Jess had a job in Boston and Tim was a premed student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, taking science courses after earning his undergraduate degree in English from Georgetown University. Hanging out in Harvard Square one evening with a juggler friend, Jess ran into an acquaintance from Oxford. He told her he had just seen Tim and gave her his address. She wrote Tim a letter that kicked off a lengthy correspondence between the two by U.S. Mail.

"I've always been a writer, and he's always been a writer," said Jess, who majored in comparative literature at UMass. She saved their letters.

After a year of letter writing, they decided to meet up face-to-face. "I was really into him, and he had no interest in me whatsoever," she said.

Tim recalled riding the Peter Pan bus in from Northampton, intending to tell Jess he wasn't interested in a relationship. But on his arrival in Boston, "Jess is in her element," Tim said. They went to a Celtics game and a John Hiatt concert.

"Boom," Tim said. They fell in love.

Before their 1996 marriage at Old North Church in Boston, Jess and Tim moved to Durham, N.C., where he went to medical school at Duke University. She attended the University of North Carolina School of Law; Jess also taught a course on law and democracy to gifted high school students. Though she got her law degree, she had found her passion in teaching.

"I like helping kids push their own limits," she said, "so they can figure out just how strong they are and how smart they are."

After time in Utah and Massachusetts, the Laheys lived for 13 years in New Hampshire, where Tim was a physician and bioethicist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center and a faculty member at the Geisel School of Medicine.

An opportunity came up at UVM that appealed to his interest in teaching and would allow him to focus on medical ethics. In 2018, the Laheys moved from Lyme, N.H., to Charlotte.

Tim said he felt particularly lucky to live in Vermont during the pandemic. The state's "secret sauce," he said, "is, generally speaking, we try to take care of each other."

When the pandemic thrust infectious disease doctors into the spotlight, Tim, who already wrote for national publications, made himself readily available to local reporters. His plainspoken communications about COVID-19 merged medical and public health expertise with a recognition of the virus' impact on people: restaurant workers who need a paycheck or families who want to send their kids to school safely.

The fast-moving science of COVID-19 was a challenge for him to keep up with, though that's what he's trained to do, Tim said. He felt it was important to make complicated issues approachable and explain them to fellow Vermonters "like a neighbor."

When political divisiveness and misinformation influenced people's behavior around the virus, Tim stressed the importance of "retaining compassion." He focused on our "commonalities" when talking to the public and interacting with vaccine-hesitant patients. Such an exchange could be as simple as recognizing a shared appreciation for "the fat snowflakes falling today."

"For me, it's really important to look back on this period and [know] I've always been respectful and nice," Tim said. Physicians can't let "the world's divisiveness seep into patient-doctor interactions. We've got to keep the exam room a safe place about helping people get better."

Examples of his ethics work at UVM include crafting abortion policy; helping to foster therapeutic patient-doctor interactions in the face of increased violence toward clinicians; and working to reconcile the views of patients, families and providers who might disagree on treatment options.

"My training is to evaluate how different people see different parts of the elephant," Tim said. "You should take into account all the variables before you try to solve the equation."

At the start of the pandemic, he worked on policies related to crisis care and resource allocation. Though ventilators never had to be rationed in Vermont, for a couple of weeks at the peak of the Omicron surge, the state had fewer COVID-19 treaments available than it had patients who might benefit from them, Tim said.

Hospital policy is based on saving the most lives possible, he said. That meant reserving scarce treatments for the highest-risk patients, taking into account factors such as age, vaccination and immunocompromised status.

"You never want to be punitive when you think about a clinical decision," Tim said. "You don't judge people because they smoke or don't exercise. You just say, 'How can I help you?'"

Helping people is also at the core of Jess' work as an educator, researcher and writer. For several years, she wrote a parenting column for the New York Times, "Parent-Teacher Conference," that covered subjects ranging from parents helping their children (too much) with school projects to holiday gifts for teachers. She taught writing to high school students in a residential rehab program at Valley Vista in Bradford. (That program no longer exists.) Now she contemplates the possibility of starting a high school in Chittenden County for students in recovery.

"Helping kids is not a straight line," Jess said. "It's a very crooked line."

Her 2021 book The Addiction Inoculation offers practical, evidence-based advice on preventing or minimizing young people's risk of developing substance-use disorder.

The book starts with a compelling chapter about Jess' own alcoholism. (She didn't drink during her pregnancies, she notes in the book.) She's been sober since June 2013, when her father confronted her about her drinking problem.

Jess attended her first 12-step meeting that evening, choosing to drive to White River Junction because of its distance from her home in Lyme.

"I was scared to death of running into the parents of one of my students," she said.

Jess attended the White River meeting almost every week for five years. She described it as the "coolest mix" of people, including Norwich knitters and bikers in leather gear. She has favorite meetings in places she visits when she travels for work.

At home, her family provides support. "Tim looks out for me," Jess said. "If he wants a beer with dinner, he brings home a single-serving size."

Talking openly and honestly about alcohol and drugs is a guiding principle for her, one to which she is fiercely committed in her household.

"I grew up not being allowed to talk about [drinking]," Jess said. "And I'm still pissed off about it."

Jess wrote about facing alcoholism soon after she attended her first meeting. In her book, she excerpts a piece that was published anonymously on HuffPost.

In it, Jess writes about setting an example for her son: "As his mother — particularly his alcoholic mother — the most important gift I can give him is the power of my example to guide him if he ever stumbles upon the treacherous terrain of our family's well-worn slippery slope."

She offers The Addiction Inoculation to other families so that they, too, can recognize issues related to substance use, communicate openly about it and learn practices for raising healthy kids.

The collage in the Laheys' bathroom is an homage to clear and thoughtful communication, from Tim's poem, "Tide," to the Post food article, a story by Jess about nonalcoholic beer.

The collage could change, Jess said, as she and Tim work on new projects and communicate their findings to the rest of us.

"His job and my job are to help people hear things that may be difficult to hear," Jess said.

The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence by Jessica Lahey, Harper, 336 pages. $26.99.

Tim Lahey will participate in a town meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Wednesday, March 2, at 5 p.m. Lahey will discuss COVID-19.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Singular Service, Double Byline"