On Mentoring: Looking Back with Gratitude and Paying It Forward

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Upon graduation from medical school, doctors are given a gift that lasts a lifetime—the gift of respect. That respect needs to be re-earned every day, but it is accompanied by other rewards that come with caring for people: the ability to gain another’s trust, to reverse illness that alters the patient’s life, to hold fast an individual’s innermost secrets, and to gain enormous satisfaction in so doing. These are the rewards of being a physician.

My father was a physician, approximately 40 of my direct relatives are or were physicians, and I am also the extraordinarily fortunate “son” of innumerable professors and mentors who educated me. How do I repay those who came before me and gave me so much?

Repaying Our Benefactors

When I asked if I might repay my father for providing me with the opportunities for a great public school and medical education, he said the only repayment necessary was to see to the education of my children, and I have. But what is my responsibility to those, in addition to my daughter, who followed me into medicine? As far back as Hippocrates, doctors have been given the responsibility to not only care for others but also to teach and mentor the “sons” and “daughters” who enter medical practice after them.

Our schools also deserve our gratitude. We may have been excellent, hard-working students, but the schools we attended did not have to admit us, educate us, and pass their imprimaturs onto us. We owe those schools our support, both in thanks for our education and in the interest of educating future students.

Compassion and Wisdom

The answers in medicine constantly change, but most of the questions never do. Likewise, there will always be a place for the art of medicine, built on compassion and judgment. Keeping current in the science of medicine never replaces the need for compassion, and the art of medicine is a special gift that must be conveyed to younger physicians. It is our responsibility to convert those who do not know the art of medicine to those who understand and practice this essential skill. 

As we grow older, hopefully we grow wiser. Wisdom, in my estimation, is knowledge plus experience. One cannot have the judgment to know when and when not to treat without having treated many before and learning from the experience. The patient relies upon that wisdom the doctor derives from experience.

We can help so many more by passing on what we have learned; old mistakes need not be repeated. Our hands may not be as steady, our stamina may not be as reliable, but we can still identify symptoms and help make diagnoses, and patients as well as a future generation of physicians can profit from our insight.

Our Legacy

So once we are entrusted with the gift of being a doctor, we owe it to our parents, our teachers, our profession, and ourselves to pay it forward. Mentoring is the link from the past to the future. Our legacy should be to prepare our children and the physicians of succeeding generations, for the benefit of all. ■

Dr. Boxer is Professor of Clinical Urology at the University of Miami, and Clinical Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.