Memories offer lessons in going from mentee to mentor

Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies,

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower—but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.


I recently received news that one of my professors from medical school—a man who taught tirelessly, with uncommon fire and enthusiasm—had been diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal condition. Like many of my former classmates, my first reaction was one of shock, followed quickly by sadness.

In reflecting on my memories of him and his impact in the weeks since, I have also gained a renewed appreciation for the power of mentorship. On a tangible level, my professor guided me through core concepts in pathophysiology, building what would become foundations for my daily clinical work. (There still are moments when, in discussing a patient's condition on rounds, I hear his voice vibrantly describing hemidesmosomes, glomerular filtration, and cellular pathways.) He was a consummate and effective educator.

In the years that followed, I also enjoyed more nuanced but equally important aspects of his mentorship. On one level, he mentored me through his actions and demeanor. Although we never shared specific clinical or research interests, and although he never represented the most natural “fit” as a career mentor, few have affected my professional philosophy as much as he has. He pursued his work with uncommon emotion and passion. He prepared as diligently for his courses as he expected his students to study for them. In essence, he embodied the words from his favorite poem, studying and appreciating the complexity of physiology just as Tennyson did the flowers from crannied walls. Without ever needing to vocalize it, it was clear that he absolutely loved what he did.

On another level, he was able to consistently identify and evoke things in me before I could. It was rare for us to have conversations in which he did not urge me to pursue deeper understanding of medicine. No matter how inconsequential the stakes, he always challenged me to go that proverbial extra mile in my work, believing that effort would translate into mastery and that I would emerge better for it. When I knew the material well, he would push me to know it extremely well. When I knew it extremely well, he would push me to teach it well, and then facilitate opportunities for me to actually teach it. I owe a great deal of my approach to patient care and education to him, someone who saw what I could become before I did.

These are important reflections for me as I transition into my final year as a resident physician. While I have engaged many different content areas since finishing his course—progressing through concepts in basic science to those in clinical care, and now internal medicine—that commitment and tireless pursuit of excellence have served me well throughout. Being able to find joy in the work I do has carried me through some challenging, tiring periods. Now, as I grow in my responsibility to lead, guide, and serve as a role model for younger trainees, they compel me to honor my professor's example and incorporate several key elements into my own mentorship relationships.

First, I will remember that what a mentor does will always speak louder than what he or she says. In both positive and negative ways, mentors transmit “lessons” to their mentees through their everyday actions, conversations, and decisions. Unfortunately, those implicit lessons can contradict what mentors say or teach as often as they can reinforce them, sometimes creating a dichotomy between what some have termed the “explicit curriculum” and the “hidden curriculum.” The former is composed of things taught in lectures and classrooms, the things many programs and educators appropriately focus on. But as an equally powerful influence on behavior and attitude, the latter also merits close attention. Mentors beget passionate, motivated mentees by displaying those qualities in their own lives.

Second, my memories of my professor remind me that a crucial part of being a mentor is learning how to see the potential in one's mentees before they see it themselves. In talking with my colleagues, this quality appears common among outstanding mentors. It is not simply an effort to mold a mentee into a version of oneself, and it is far more than advancing them along a predetermined career path. Instead, it is the quality of detecting nascent passions and emerging gifts and to encourage (and sometimes firmly push) them from potential into better versions of themselves.

Finally, these reflections reinforce that the most influential mentors are frequently those who remain captivated by the things they still do not understand. Of course, there is much to be said and appreciated about mentors with wisdom, experience, and specific areas of expertise. However, I have been inspired most by the ones who, despite achieving great things, appreciate the mysteries that remain in their work. In their examples, I see hope that passion is best sustained when expertise is tempered by humility. I desire to model something similar to those who learn from me.

Soon, I will join a chorus of others and pay my respects to one of my earliest teachers in medical training. After all these years, however, I will remember much more than just the material that he taught. From the other side of medical school graduation, I will remember that out of the many who taught me content, he was one of the few who also taught me passion. From the other side of internship, and the hundreds of hours spent caring for patients, I will remember his dogged insistence that I never stop learning, whatever the stakes. From this side of the mentorship relationship, I will remember to always teach my future mentees to do the same—to look up at life's crannied walls along whatever path they choose, and revel in the beauty of the secrets they find there.