“What do you do that we can’t?”
That’s the question an academic adviser asked me when hearing about my program in Maine. Honestly, there isn’t anything I can do that a college academic adviser can’t in the way of looking at prerequisites, mapping out a course plan, providing feedback for experience, research, GPA, MCAT, and essays. The only unique thing I provide in the way of academics is mock interviews, having served as an interviewer for my medical school.
The better question is, how is a mentor different than an academic adviser?
The day is busy and I’m bustling between my own rotations at the hospital. I text my mentee because it’s the day before their MCAT. “You’re going to crush it!” I know they’re nervous because I was nervous. I’ve been where they are.
A mentee calls me when their MCAT score comes back, it’s sub-par to their expectations. I tell them how proud I am of their hard work. I know they were balancing two kids and a job when they took it. I know how hard they worked. I am proud of them.
I get the text from a mentee, “Thank you for being there.” It’s after we talked about depression during the journey of becoming a physician. I normalized the stigma because I know the statistics, I know the stress they are under. I found resources for them to be healthy on their journey.
I know my mentee doesn’t have a family to be their cheerleader or help them with finances. They had trouble paying for food last week, even though they are working an unpaid internship for school. But they know they are not alone on this journey, and that support can make all the difference between continuing and giving up.
I have a new mentee show up late to an appointment with me. I explain timeliness and thank you notes. I talk to them, and others, about the need to dress professionally during shadowing experiences. The next time I see them, they write me a thank you note for my time. I am teaching them how to be a professional.
How do you learn how to mentor?
I didn’t get into medical school the first time I applied, for reasons that I talk about elsewhere. Dr. P, one of many influential physicians in my life, pulled me aside and said, “You are going to be a doctor.” I explained to him that I’d already tried to become a doctor and that I wasn’t able to get in. I was discouraged, having worked full-time through college, studying between ambulance calls and showing up to classes knowing I had $5 in a checking account and needed my next paycheck to get food.
Dr. P explained that everyone fails at something in life. He told me what I had to do to improve my application. He let me know what I was capable of when I let self-doubt and discouragement take me down a road I wasn’t going to be happy traveling. I followed his advice, and I got into medical school the next round of applications. That moment in time though, was how close I was to not becoming a physician.
Dr. L has been working with me since I was in undergrad. He taught me how to palpate a spleen, listen to a murmur, how to give the patient a recipe for Tourtiere pie, a piece of yourself for the patient to take with them. There was this profound, divergent course moment for me when I told Dr. L my choice of specialty. Part of me knew that I didn’t want to do emergency medicine. I was choosing it for the wrong reasons. I’m not here to discuss the reasons you should choose a specialty, but I will tell you that the conversation that happened with my mentor did not go as I had planned.
Dr. L flat out told me I chose wrong and that I should have chosen a different field of medicine. I was so angry. Angry that someone would tell me what I should do. In hindsight, this was the moment I learned that part of a mentor’s role is not to be your friend, it’s to know your journey, what drives you, where you have been the happiest, and where you will find a lifetime of fulfillment. Dr. L knew that I wanted more than anything to be a cardiac electrophysiologist, and that hard conversation helped me to face what I wanted head-on. I chose to pursue cardiology, and in so he saved me from a lifetime of being in a specialty that wasn’t the right fit for me.
A few weeks ago, just a week into working as a doctor, I received a letter from Dr. L. I had spent that day trying to sort through how to put in an order for an MRI, which is harder than it seems, how to balance 21 patients for a night shift and how scary the first order for potassium is. In the letter, I found calipers. The note said that after forty years of using these calipers he was passing them on to me, a metal torch that someday I may give to one of my mentees. After years of being taught the art of medicine, it’s my turn to illuminate the right path for others when their road diverges.