The inestimable value of a mentor

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Quick, think of someone unrelated to you who has had a major impact on your life. I’d wager the vast majority of us pictured a face or two, and that nearly all (I hope) represented a positive influence. In my thirty-plus-year career in medicine, I’ve been blessed with several, and their impact on my life and career is truly inestimable.

As a smart kid who went to medical school because it’s what I thought smart kids did, I was ill-equipped for the all-out competitiveness, the unreasonable hours, the complete immersion in school required to excel in medical school in the 1980s (and we had it easy if you asked our predecessors). My goal was to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s, and I received some (bad) advice that I needed an MD to be taken seriously. It’s a good thing I applied as an MD/PhD, because I pretty quickly realized I hated chopping off heads of rats and performing bench research that had little chance of impacting anything but the pages of a journal over the course of even a long career.

I dropped out of the PhD part before third year (a tough decision as I’d never quit anything in my life), and soon realized I wasn’t so crazy about the MD part either. My rotation group was the “hypes” of my class and me. I’d survived the first two years, but my previously photographic memory ran out of film during anatomy, and physiology was the only course that really excited me. It played to my engineering background, the preference to learn and apply concepts, rather than memorize and regurgitate.

And so, several weeks into that first rotation (general surgery at the VA), and newly cured of my aversion to quitting, I told my attending I was going to drop out of school. He insisted I first speak to his friend, an anesthesiologist, who further insisted I speak with his colleague, Dr. Michael Good. Mike was a junior faculty member with grand plans for a full-scale human patient simulator. He had me at “simulated physiology.”

And so, this reluctant medical student spent every moment outside of clinical obligations working with the team of engineers Mike Good had amassed. I finished medical school and chose anesthesiology for its emphasis on physiology, reasoning, and visible results, staying at UF to continue working on the simulator project. I spent my fellowship altering the simulator’s physiology for a pregnant woman. We added an empathy belly in a weak attempt at the suspension of disbelief, but really, the manikin’s face could not be more masculine, and the wig helped little.

So Dr. Good’s willing intervention and active interest in my development kept me in medical school and led me to become an academic anesthesiologist. When his career took a turn toward administration, his mentor, Dr. J. S. Gravenstein, took over. He convinced me to stay at the University of Florida, and a couple of years later, when I mentioned a need for a good introductory anesthesia textbook geared to medical students, he suggested we co-write one. So we did. Writing Essential Anesthesia: From Science to Practice together was an incredible journey. Not just through selecting topics and writing and choosing diagrams and writing and working with publishers and proofs and reviews, but through his innumerable stories about the evolution of anesthesia during his career and the story of his remarkable life. But that’s a topic for another article, or a full-length book, or series, on its own. Sadly, Dr. J. S. Gravenstein did not live to see the publication of the 2nd Edition of our book. Instead, two of his sons wrote it with me. But Dr. Gravenstein made me into the educator I became.

There have been other mentors; Dr. Michael Mahla coached me through my role as residency program director. And Dr. Kayser Enneking modeled the possibilities for women to excel in every role from wife to mother to physician to chair of a leading anesthesia department. Dr. Patrick Duff, an obstetrician, has been my constant supporter and confidante inside and outside of medicine.

Now, as a full professor shifting gears toward an encore career as a fiction author, I can only hope that I, too, have had some small impact on the next generation. It would be my greatest honor to be the face someone conjures when they hear, “think of someone who has had a major impact on your life.”

Tammy Euliano is an anesthesiologist and author of Fatal Intent.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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