• On the Subject of Mentors

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    What makes a good mentor? As a senior ophthalmologist, time and maturation of career certainly brings this question into focus. It is essential that we reflect on what got us to this point, where serendipity plays a role, where individuals influence our choices, and what we might do to play similar formative roles for those considering a career in medicine or ophthalmology.

    All of us have arrived at the “senior” level in part because of kindness and inspiration provided by others. I share my thoughts on what makes a good mentor (and why not add womentor…) in hopes this will provoke you to reflect on your own life experiences.

    A mentor comes at a pivotal point in one’s life. Underneath every teenager’s façade of certainty, omnipotence, and readiness for life’s challenges is a person seeking direction and an approach to the “adult” phase of life. It takes a special person to become a mentor — one that can see this need, and one that knows how to communicate this special form of assistance across generational differences.

    In my life, the untimely death of my father during my senior year of high school was this pivotal point. By chance, a woman physician sensed this void and asked me to accompany her to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit because she “needed my help” in making rounds. The need was my own.

    A mentor shows the true joy of a vocation. In my circumstance, I could see her commitment to the premature babies, through her concentration, her methodical examination, and her gentle caring. She placed one of the baby’s hands in mine, and told me that in all likelihood I would outlive this child; it was unfathomable to me that by nature of birth, such a short straw could be drawn. She emphasized the societal responsibility that “someone needs to care for him and that’s why I do this.” How could a sixteen year old not see the elegance of such a life calling?

    A mentor reflects the importance of learning and of mastery. As a beginning medical student, I was eager to show her what I had learned. In proudly relating that my first patient had “NSR” she probed me to understand what I had said. “What does that mean?” “How does that happen?” “How long must you listen to know it is true?” “Why is it so important?” One simple finding pushes the boundaries of so much that goes into making a competent physician.

    A mentor shares a common thread, but possesses more experience. In my case, it was the unique aspects of being a woman in a predominantly man’s world. How does one react when a professor calls you “sweetie” or when less-than tasteful slides are inserted in a lecture presentation? There are so very many other differences beyond this example that bond individuals together in a supportive fashion.

    A mentor relishes in the success of those mentored.

    Surely, there are other mentor stories and other mentor attributes. Might we all reflect on those that have entered our lives, given direction, set examples, shared life’s journey, and been there for us