Medical Mentors- thoughts on the passing of a friend

Stories are emerging from the woodwork about bullies in medicine. I’d like to say I’m shocked, but sadly I think most doctors have experienced, seen, or at least heard whispers in the corridor hinting of similar experiences.

I’ve been thinking about the opposite of bullying: where someone is not only pleasant and professional, but they go out of their way to teach you, help you or mentor you. I hope that most doctors have known someone like this, a clinician who they could respect and seek to emulate.

This week a mentor and dear friend of mine passed away and I feel bereft. Besides feelings of loss, regret at not visiting more and pangs of sorrow for her family, I am reminded of the lifelong impact she had on not only the way I practice medicine, but the way I live life.

It was by a happy accident that as a third year med student on an overseas elective in the US, I landed in theatre with Anne, a warm, strong and highly intelligent Scottish-born anesthesiologist. I will be forever grateful for this.

I was not only in need of teaching, I was in dire need of a mentor. Being far from home, in a pretty sticky situation, I felt lost. Life doesn’t stop for medical school and it was a sometimes painful and tumultuous time for me.

She saw I needed guidance and took me under her wing. ‘I’ve decided to adopt you,’ she said, with a pleasing Scottish lilt.

She taught me not only about anaesthetics, but plenty about patient care and rapport, medical ethics, and how to live life fully and generously. Who says anaesthetists are only good with the unconscious!

She took me in for Christmas, introduced me to her family and her beloved boxer dogs. I stayed a while and it felt like home. Looking out over the river from her back window I felt so peaceful.

I have since learnt that my friend has helped countless others. It was completely usual for her to give tirelessly of her time, knowledge, expertise, affection and energy. It was ordinary for her, but to me, extraordinary and so needed.

She would devote evenings to residents who were preparing for their vivas, spending hours going over the minutiae of anaesthetics.

She was wholeheartedly a patient advocate. She was a wonderful colleague, offering to take shifts when others were struggling. She was a support for friends, students, patients and her team. She was always ready with a kind word or a good strong hug.

She passed on her wisdom generously. For example, she told me that it is poor form to tell clinical stories as tales of battle for personal glory, because by doing this you are capitalising on a human being’s suffering and misfortune. I think of this every time I go to tell a clinical anecdote, asking myself ‘Am I telling this story to debrief, to enlighten, for advice- or for glory?’ If it’s for the latter, I keep my mouth shut.

This was a cute thing: she startled easily- but recovered with hilarious immediacy. I came down one morning and she was in the kitchen making coffee. I said ‘Morning!’, and she shrieked and nearly hit the roof. Then she turned to me with a serene smile. ‘Morning,’ she replied. She came over and took my face in her hands and beamed at me, like I was the very thing she had wanted to see at six in the morning.

When I went back to visit her, during a break in my GP training, I was a brighter and slightly more self assured human being. I had no task but to enjoy Anne. To make her coffee, or a meal after her shift, walk her dogs and bask in her sweet company. It was one of the happiest weeks of my life. She welcomed me into her home and her life and I am a better human being as a result.

Though she’s gone, I am determined to carry on being the kind of doctor and human being who she’d be proud to know. She was just one person, but her presence in the world was large and she will be so missed by her family and many devoted friends.

I would love to hear stories from any of you about mentors, role models and friends who have inspired you and touched your lives.


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