I am always on a quest to be helpful. For this reason, a life in medicine has always made perfect sense to me. My interest in surgery also developed early when I had been performing music for Alzheimer’s patients in high school. It was almost unbelievable to help these individuals reconnect with their memories and surroundings through my music. But I left each day frustrated and aching, knowing that these cognitive revivals were only temporary. I wanted my hands to be capable of more! It was around this time that I knew I had to become a surgeon.
When I came to Houston, I didn’t expect to work with several cardiothoracic legends this early in my academic career. Thanks to a lot of persistence and even more generosity on their end, I have many mentors who undoubtedly serve as my best resource. Without them, I would be nowhere.
I cannot insist enough that mentorship is the key ingredient for success in medicine. We must rely on each other for support when the demands of training feel insurmountable. Surgery is perhaps the most traditional of medical specialties, relying on hierarchy and deference to help sustain its culture of rigor and prestige. More importantly, the nature of the work that we perform on the operating table, for our patients, requires us to be humble and to seek guidance from others with more experience and wisdom. My first piece of advice is to seek out mentors often and to treat everyone as a potential mentor. I have found that you can and will never know enough.
My first mentor in surgery used to buy me breakfast after rounds back at home. He personally wrapped me up in sterile garb before operations and laughed when I ended up looking like one of the burritos we had just eaten.
My first mentor in Houston, with whom I still work, always pushes me to be excellent. Our lab studies a novel method of cardiac regeneration, and it is through this research that I have tested my hands at surgeries in murine models. It is riveting to navigate the miniature anatomy with my scalpel, and ultimately gratifying to successfully complete these procedures. There is no room for error in scientific endeavor, and certainly none when human lives are at stake. I fondly remember his first reassuring comment and implied set of expectations: “You’re going to be excellent, Jackie.” I don’t expect anything less from myself.
This past summer, I interacted closely with several mentors as they met with and operated on patients at Baylor St. Luke’s. By the second day on the services, I departed from the notion that surgery was glamorous. The activity itself certainly was collaborative and rewarding when our teamwork saved lives. But being present at the start of rounds, through six to ten-hour surgeries, to post-op visits was exhausting. I had romanticized a career in the field without accounting for just how much time and energy it would take to develop it. Three times I slept in my car instead of going home. Once I remained scrubbed for 11 hours of an “elephant trunk” operation, finally stepping out of the OR and realizing my bladder was about to burst. Another time I naively felt relieved as an overwhelming calm pervaded the trauma bay minutes into the team’s assessment of a boy my age who was brought in after a gun fight. He died one minute later, and I listened to his mother’s sobs as I stitched up one of his wounds.
Although I’d like to think I’m a resilient individual, I credit my mentors for helping me get through the summer. They instructed me on causes and symptoms, CT scans, anatomical structures, transplants and aortic repairs, and how to communicate with patients and in surgery. They coached me on what I will need to do in medical school and how to be a whole, good person throughout training. At times they even explained how I should be feeling because my head would swirl from all of the conflicting emotions. And often they simply did their jobs in silence, affording me the opportunity to observe without interruption. Some of these moments were the most valuable.
It was during these moments that I also learned how to be my own mentor. I meditated on my strengths and weaknesses, how I did this thing right but could have helped out more with that. I got to know myself better, and in doing so, became a better student and person. We are most capable of caring for others when we strive to be the best versions of ourselves. We are unlikely to burn out. We are more attuned to how we and others feel.
My second piece of advice is to be a mentor. I know that as a student I cannot teach surgeons anything about how to operate or care for patients, but by working hard and being respectful, I may inspire them to be good teachers. As a student, I have a blossoming perspective on things I’ve witnessed and sometimes even done myself. The cornerstone of medical education “see one, do one, teach one” inspires my efforts to write and answer queries from other students, and even pitch ideas to my mentors. Moreover, social media has served as a special platform to offer tips to others I’ve actually never met. I am overjoyed that I can already be helpful in this field without a professional medical license!
I had the great privilege of meeting Dr. Denton Cooley a few months before he passed away. I will always remember that he said he was luckier when he worked harder. But he wasn’t referring to luck as a random outcome, rather a consequence of preparation meeting opportunity. Providing our patients with the highest quality care requires hard work and serious investment in personal relationships. At all stages in our careers, we must seek mentorship, be mentors, and encourage others to do the same.
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