Success is a Terrible Teacher

Dr. Belafsky is a renowned physician known for his exhaustive research, extensive collaboration, crazy ideas, and a bustling medical practice as Director for The Center for Voice and Swallowing, UC Davis. He is a co-founder of Reflux Gourmet.


It’s a quiet afternoon. The day is winding down as the department outside my closed office door is slipping away, eager to begin their weekends…



…and I am dying on the floor. 



Having dedicated my entire life’s work to that small and critical area of the body responsible for breathing and swallowing, my very own neck is currently being crushed between two of the most powerful magnets you can hold in your hands.


On my knees, unable to breathe or call for help, the world begins to grow dark as I struggle to pull the magnets apart in order to save my life.


What a stupid way to die.


That was my last clear thought. Given that there wasn’t much oxygen left in my brain, I’m not sure how I finally got the magnets apart and opened my airway, but I’m here to share the story – and grateful to be!


I have dedicated myself to the improvement of health and quality of life in people with complex swallowing problems. Reflux is one of the most common causes of difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). The consequences of swallowing impairment can include malnutrition, dehydration, social isolation, depression, pneumonia, pulmonary abscess, cancer, and death. The status quo is not acceptable. To make significant changes, we must innovate.


Innovation in medicine presents both challenges and opportunities. While the costs and regulatory hurdles can be significant, there is enormous potential for new treatments, technologies, and out-of-the-box approaches to improve health and enhance the quality of life for each and every one of us. By investing in research and development, fostering collaboration across academic centers, specialties, and industries, we can harness the power of innovation to create a brighter future for everyone.


“Investing” doesn’t necessarily mean “money.” In fact, that is usually the last investment required for such progress. It means investing time, investing of oneself. It means being brave enough to say, “I don’t know.” It’s being willing to stand up and fall – hard, and usually in front of people you admire…which, it turns out, is actually decidedly better than alone in your office.


Failure is an essential aspect of innovation. Every innovation requires an acceptance of both risk and failure. It is through failure that we learn what works and what doesn’t. Failure provides an opportunity to reevaluate our assumptions, strategies, and processes, leading to improved outcomes – improved lives. The most successful innovators and entrepreneurs understand the importance of failure and use it as a tool for growth and learning. They are not afraid to take risks and try new things, knowing that some (most) will inevitably fail. But failure is not the opposite of success, and my father always said, “success is a terrible teacher.” By embracing failure together, we can create a culture of innovation that values crazy ideas, experimentation, the very Gray Area where progress is achieved and lives are saved.


And check your ego at the door, my friends. What scraps of hubris I may have had left certainly died an ugly death that day on the floor of my office – right before air made its way back into my starved lungs.


So, was that afternoon I almost killed myself a failure? I like to be crazy. I like to be wrong. I like to be moving forward, and 99.9% of forward motion does not take place while waving from a flowery float in a victory parade. That forward motion starts with those three magic words: I don’t know. Saying those words sets you free to find the answers. I didn’t end up using the Magnets of Death in the way I thought I might, but that afternoon paved the way for the creation of a medical device that grants aspirating patients the ability to pull their own larynx forward to create a clear path for food and water to safely travel through their esophagus and into their stomach – protecting them from the dire consequences of choking and aspiration, and welcoming them back to the dinner table beside friends and family.


Thus, the question remains, was that a failure? What is failure?


I don’t know.


But I’m dying to find out.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Reflux Gourmet.
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