The importance of mentoring: Teaching by example

BROOKINGS – This ancient wisdom often rings so very true: “You only teach by example.”

We all have mentors in our lives, people who serve as examples, whose patterns of living teach us how to face challenges. Of course, most of us start out with our parents as mentors, and then look to other relatives, teachers, partners, and heroes in stories worth emulating.

Even before my medical training, I watched and learned from our family physician, Dr. Bob Bell. I remember how his interests outside of medicine were very broad, including hunting and fishing, water skiing, sailing, playing cards, singing in the choir, enjoying art, etc. Dr. Bell and his wife Phyllis gave me a sense of how a superb physician family can enjoy and savor every moment of life. 

I watched Dr. Karl Wegner, a pathologist, lecturer and the first dean of our South Dakota Medical School, as he taught through empathy. I remember how he made every one of his students feel like he was speaking directly to him or her. Dr. Wegner gave me a sense of how a superb physician values the other guy.

I watched Dr. Joe Hardison, an internist at the VA hospital in Decatur, Georgia, whose diagnostic acumen and skills were famous among residents. I remember how he cleverly examined his patients, looking for subtle clues that would allow him to make a correct diagnosis. Dr. Hardison gave me a sense of how a superb physician uses her or his senses and brain to make a diagnosis.

I watched Dr. Keller, a cancer specialist at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, whose caring way remarkably helped cancer patients deal and cope with incredibly ominous conditions. I remember how he confidently listened and spoke with consoling words and eyes to those with widely spread cancer. Dr. Keller gave me a sense of how a superb, compassionate, physician gives relief and exemplifies medical ethics in action.

And I watched Dr. Bob Talley, a cardiologist and former dean of USD Sanford School of Medicine, whose concern for students and residents elevated our medical school to the some of the highest standards of training in the country. A specific example is how he helped mold a new method of integrated training in South Dakota, which Harvard has since copied, and which is also catching on throughout the country (our present dean, Dr. Mary Nettleman is following through and expanding on this wonderful direction). Dr. Tally gave me a sense of how a superb physician, one who concentrates with all of his soul on helping young physicians learn, can result in an elevated quality of care by administered by his students to patients around the world. 

We only learn from and teach by example.

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