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Medical Mentors, Past and Future

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As you put on your white coat for the very first time, I want to congratulate you on your accomplishments. But I also want to ask you to stop and think about all those people who made this wonderful occasion possible.

Of course you are most responsible for all the hard work and the long nights of study. The all-nighters, organic chemistry, perhaps a struggle through biochem, MCATs and all those interviews. Yes, you were the ones who made it possible.

"Life is complicated and good mentors usually have some battle scars. They like to give advice, and more importantly, they know how to listen and bring out the best in you."
But there were others who made it possible for you to even try, and try to do your best. These were your parents, teachers, perhaps a doctor with whom you had the chance to work or volunteer. All these folks—mentors—have made a difference in your life. Remember them every time you proudly put on your white coat. Each of them will be symbolically there holding your coat open and adjusting its fit.

If you were lucky you had multiple mentors. Maybe you just had one. But I doubt any one of you arrived here as a first-year student at Weill Cornell Medical College without one, even if you never thought of a professor, doctor or parent as a mentor.

So, what is a mentor? A mentor is someone who provides advice and counsel and helps you make good choices. They are usually older and wiser and have insight borne of experience.

Life is complicated and good mentors usually have some battle scars. They like to give advice, and more importantly, they know how to listen and bring out the best in you. They let you problem-solve out loud in a way that is safe and secure. They let you make mistakes so that you can explore and find your way.

There is a rich tradition of mentoring in medicine but the word itself derives from Greek mythology at the time of the Trojan War. Mentor was a good friend of Odysseus and was charged by him to take care of his son Telemachus when Odysseus went off to Troy. And Mentor lived up to this expectation, taking charge of young Telemachus' education and shepherding his development while Odysseus was away.

Why do I bring up mentors now? Not so that you'll decide to leave here and study the classics, but rather that you'll recognize an opportunity to be mentored when you see one.

So when my good friend Carlyle Miller—Dr. Miller (who actually interviewed me for medical school)—asked me to give this lecture, I thought I would try to mentor you guys in the art of seeking out a mentor.

I figured what could I do for you that would be a gift that would keep on giving? You already got the coat—what else do you need? You need a mentor. You will almost certainly forget who gave your White Coat Ceremony Lecture, but you'll never forget your mentor(s).

So how do you go out and find a mentor? What characterizes a good medical mentor and how do you find them? Let me tell you about two of mine who could serve as examples.

Speaking at the 2007 White Coat Ceremony, keynote speaker Dr. Joseph Fins stresses the importance for medical students to find good mentors.
The first medical mentor I had was a G.P. from my hometown of Rockville Centre, New York, with whom I worked as a volunteer while I was in high school. His name was Dr. John L. Battenfeld. He had closed down his practice to become an E.R. doc at our community hospital and that is where I met him. He was very patient-centered, before that phrase became part of our lexicon, and clinically very astute. In retrospect, he may have been the very best all-around doctor I have ever had the privilege of working with.

So what made him such a great mentor? Well, he was really good at what he did and was interested in passing it on to the next generation. He was kind and terrifically smart.

And he packed a number of surprises. He was very broadly educated in the humanities thanks to the Jesuits who had taught him in college and Georgetown. I can vividly recall first learning about catgut, a kind of suture material, and Dante's "La Divina Comedia," ("The Divine Comedy") at the same sitting. We were sitting in that old E.R. suturing up a little kid with a laceration. Between the sutures, he also explained who Dante was and why he was such an important poet.

It was this odd juxtaposition, so characteristic of Dr. Battenfeld, that made him a terrific mentor for me. Maybe not for you, but terrific for me. And that is another important lesson—you need to meet a lot of people in order to find a mentor who is a good fit. There were other docs in that E.R., with whom I had good relationships, but Dr. Battenfeld's experiences, temperament and interests were aligned enough with the person I was then and the doctor I might one day become. So you have to meet lots of people and come in contact with individuals with many backgrounds and interests to find someone who will be a good fit.

The good news is that the richness of this place—and the depth and scope of our faculty—almost guarantees that there is a mentor here to be discovered and a relationship to be cultivated. Seek us out, find us, work in a clinic, find a spot in a lab. Ask questions, seek advice. We—my colleagues and I—would welcome that, and encourage you to do so.

In doing so, you will be rewarded as I was in my relationship with Dr. Battenfeld. He spoke to the nascent bioethicist in me, who liked history, philosophy and literature and still wanted to be a doc. None of that was articulated or understood back then, but in Dr. Battenfeld, I found a role model who had done much of what one day I might hope to do.

He was a synthesizer, bringing disparate worlds together in a novel way. Art and science, science and art in the service of humanity. That appealed to me. It either tapped into a predilection that I had or suggested a path I might one day take.

In my first year in medical school, when I went home for a visit, he wrote a poem that prophetically spelled this all out, even before it was apparent to me.

When your feelings are not sympathetic
'twere best to peripathetic
And go take a walk
And leave all the talk
To the Professor of Medical Ethic…

I have that little poem framed on my office wall and I still marvel at its prescience. Cause or effect? I don't know, but it is a mentoring relationship that still speaks to me—and through me to you, the next generation—some 25 years after his death.

And that is another bit about mentoring. Mentoring is about generational shifts, about history and ultimately the history of medicine. It is a way of ensuring the continuance of values that make us a profession. It is a legacy that gets passed on.

We see this in the Hippocratic Oath, which obliges us to take care of the next generation of physicians and teach them as a way to repay our own mentors. The Weill Cornell version of the Oath reminds us:

That just as I have learned from those who preceded me,
so will I instruct those who follow me in the science and the art of medicine.

You see mentoring is a two-way street, marked by reciprocity and mutual benefit. These relationships often start off as formal and hierarchical ones but they become flattened over time. They evolve into friendships between equals, with the mentor and the mentee having benefiting from the give and take.

And as I stand here, honored to be here, I ask myself, have I gotten old enough to give a talk like this? As I stand here, I think of another physician who I only wish could have given this talk to you, instead of me.

I am thinking of another mentor, the late Dr. David E. Rogers, or Dave Rogers, as everyone called him. Dave was one of America's most distinguished physicians, and a mentor to many.

The son of the famed psychologist Carl Rogers, and a 1948 graduate of Cornell University Medical College, as we were once called, Dave had a distinguished career as an infectious disease specialist. After doing his medicine residency and infectious disease fellowship at The New York Hospital, he left here to become the nation's youngest professor of medicine and chairman at Vanderbilt in the late '50s. He was later dean at Hopkins, founding president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and vice chair of President GHW Bush's AIDS Commission.

I met him as a medicine resident when he returned to Cornell in the late '80s for the last 10 years of his life. He held a distinguished post as the Walsh McDermott University Professor. Walsh McDermott, who had chaired our Department of Public Health, had, in fact, been Dave's mentor.

"The good news is that the richness of this place—and the depth and scope of our faculty—almost guarantees that there is a mentor here to be discovered and a relationship to be cultivated."
Such lineages are what mentorships are all about. These links with the past will give you courage to stick up for your values in difficult times. I remember Dave telling me about his first days at Vanderbilt. It was just as the undergraduate college was going through the struggle of being integrated and there was a young African-American woman who was trying to get into the school.

Dave, who was a great advocate for social justice, was outraged about the segregation that persisted in Nashville. I remember vividly the story he recounted. While his boxes were still unpacked in his new chairman's office, he went to the chancellor of the university and said, "You let that Negro girl into the school or you'll have to find yourself a new professor of medicine."

He jeopardized his newfound post for a principled right and his daring paid off. They let the young woman into the school and Dave stayed in Nashville, building one of the great departments of medicine of its day. Vanderbilt counts many of our own amongst its distinguished alumni including Dean Gotto, Dr. Nachman, my former chair of medicine, and Dr. Mushlin, the current chair of public health.

Dave's actions were courageous—but the right thing to do, and all the more poignant now that the current Supreme Court is eroding the legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education.

I tell this story about Dave Rogers, because over the years, I have had occasion to put my own security at risk to do what I felt was the right thing. And when I found myself in such predicaments, I also thought back to Dave Rogers' example, as an enduring demonstration of moral courage. His actions showed me that it is possible to do the right thing, and gave me the inner courage to do so. Your mentors will do the same for you.

I would like to think Dave would like that I brought up this example in the current judicial climate, precisely because he couldn't. This continuity of values—his and mine—was also made possible by a mentoring relationship. And this is where I want to end, as you begin your studies here.

I want to remind you, that although I started by suggesting that you seek out mentors to help you get the most out of your training, most of your time in medicine will be spent as a potential mentor to someone else. It seems unbelievable now, but time will make this true.

I hope that you will embrace that opportunity too and that, one day, you will be the sort of mentor that I hope you will encounter here at Weill Cornell. Not only will that relationship help another, it will help ensure that your work and values have a living embodiment in protégés who remain appreciative of your investment in them and cherish your work and values.

So on this very happy day, let me wish you the best of success. As you don your new white coats, think of them as a symbol of all those mentoring relationships—past and future—that constitute the fabric of our community, a community of which you are now an important part.

Welcome to Weill Cornell Medical College.


Joseph J. Fins, M.D., F.A.C.P.
Chief, Division of Medical Ethics
Professor of Medicine
Professor of Public Health
Professor of Medicine in Psychiatry
Weill Cornell Medical College

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