The Very Heart of the Matter: How Having Open Heart Surgery Reminded Me Why Ethical Cultures Are So Important to an Organization and Why What I do as an Ethics Practitioner Matters So Much


Post By: Ann D. E. Fraser, PhD, Executive Director, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

I woke up early the morning of March 15, 2017 with the intention of catching a flight to Moncton, New Brunswick to provide values and ethics training to some of our Agency employees.

When I got up I knew something was very wrong. I couldn’t catch my breath at all. I remembered a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March”. I didn’t ignore what was happening (which was ultimately critical to resolving my dilemma) and I got a colleague to take me to the local hospital emergency and not the airport.‎ This is no different, really, than when we become aware that something is not right within our organization and immediately do something to address it, timeliness is so important.

By the time I reached the emergency department, I was breathing more easily and actually didn’t feel too, too bad. I hadn’t had a heart attack as the blood work and other tests confirmed. In fact all was good. However, you don’t, or shouldn’t ignore clear warning signs that something isn’t right, so the doctor ordered a chest x-ray. She found my lungs were filled with fluid. “Congestive heart failure” was the term used but the big question was what had caused it?

Congestive heart failure can be caused by a number of things and may be treated in a number of different ways: lifestyle changes, medications, perhaps a combination of both or, in my case, by valve replacement. It turns out I had a life-threatening condition – two faulty heart valves. Who knew?!?  However, it was taking the time to do the “deep dive” – to determine what the risk and its cause(s) were and then managing them appropriately that actually saved my life. It was important to understand the root cause.

This is the very reason we carry out, or should carry out, periodic ethical risk analyses/profiles within our organizations. We need to know what our ethical risks are and manage them appropriately to maintain our ethical culture. The first step of an ethical risk analysis/profile is to ask the right questions of employees and examine any prior information we may have to identify the risks we face as an organization. We then carry out a risk validation and assessment to determine what processes we need to put in place to protect the ethical culture of our organization by minimizing/addressing these risks.

I also remember speaking with the anesthetist prior to my surgery and commenting to him that I was a high-risk patient because of my obesity. He smiled at me and said I was not. With the support of my doctors my blood pressure and diabetes were well controlled and most of me, internally, was in pretty good shape. The doctor’s role is not unlike the role that ethics practitioners like me play within our organizations to ensure the organization`s “ethical health”.  For example, by ensuring that employees know what is expected of them in terms of decision making and behaviors through training, codes of conduct, policies, our leaders and the like.

I learned too that your condition before surgery also impacts your recovery afterward. That is to say, the better your physical health, the better and faster your recovery. It’s one of the identified advantages ‎of being an ethical organization as well. When dealing with an ethical breach, the healthier the culture, the speedier the return to normal for the organization and the lesser the impact on employee morale.

Recovery from surgery also depends on following the many rules set for you especially the rule to avoid lifting anything heavy or putting pressure on your arms to push or pull yourself out of bed or a chair. This is to protect the chest bone which was cut to access the heart and now needs to heal. This is no different than following the many rules set out in our Codes of Conduct and other policies that ensure all employees at all levels make appropriate decisions and behave appropriately in order to maintain public confidence and trust in our organizations.

Three months later and I was back at work as the Agency’s ethics practitioner. I now know from my own personal experience that, as an organization, with our Agency`s values, code of conduct, conflict of interest policy, harassment prevention policy, ethical risk profiling work, ethical climate surveys etc. we really are on the right track to ensuring continued ethical health. This is indeed the very heart of our matter.


  1. Nice analogy! Hope you continue to lead a healthy life – as an ethics professional as well as in your personal health!

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