Looking back over the course of my life, there is not one thing I can say that I accomplished on my own without help from others. In grade school I can remember every one of my teachers who helped me understand math, reading, and how to write. In fact, the learning process itself demonstrates the need we have for others. Every invention ever made has come as the result of its inventor building upon the successes and the failures of others. I think of the professors I had in college who taught me how to think critically, read expansively, and write creatively. And then I think of fellow students who shared their knowledge with me which helped me get through calculus and physics classes.
Once in medical school, there were countless professors, medical doctors, and fellow students that helped me understand what would have otherwise remained secret and hidden from me. However, it was in medical school that I learned the most from those who knew the least. These were people who did not know medicine, but asked questions that I often had never thought to ask myself and didn’t know the answers without research. These people pushed me to become better. Some of them were brilliant in different fields of study, but knew very little about my field of study and yet they were part of my journey to become an accomplished physician. Some them were high school dropouts or even drug addicts, but they often taught me more than my professors of medicine. These people were my patients. Without their questions, their acceptance of me as a physician in training, their willingness to journey with me, my journey would not have been complete.
Of all the patients with which I interacted during my training, one stands out as teaching me the importance of seeing each person as an individual who has intrinsic value and who will add to my journey. Prior to Mr. Keith, I had seen patients as patients to be treated, not as people to be known and respected. I had seen me helping them rather than us helping each other. I had seen a patient-doctor relationship where I treated their illness rather than a person-person relationship where we each contributed to the other’s understanding of life and the journey we are on.
As a medical student on duty this particular night, I was given the task of drawing blood from Mr. Keith for an important lab study. He was a slight man in his eighties residing in the ICU who did not respond to my greeting. I briefly explained what I needed to do. He still did not respond. I prepped his arm and punctured his skin with the needle as I had done on a hundred other patients. But no blood came into the syringe. I advanced the needle further without success. I withdrew the needle slightly and repositioned it, without success. I removed the needle & re-prepped his arm repeating the process again, without success. I went to his other arm repeating the entire process, without success. I spent 30 minutes with Mr. Keith trying to find one of his veins while he laid motionless with his eyes shut. I finally left his bedside without completely my task.
Later that morning we did rounds on all the patients. Once we made it to Mr. Keith’s bedside I had to explain how I had failed to draw his blood during the night. The attending physician simply said to try again after rounds. At this point the heretofore motionless Mr. Keith sat upright in his bed and said, “Don’t let that guy stick me again!” I didn’t, at least that day. But over the course of the next several weeks, Mr. Keith became a mentor to me. I got to know him as a person rather than a patient. He had served in the calvary during World War I. His wife had died a few years earlier and now he lived alone. He was an intelligent, witty, resourceful man who taught me how to see obstacles as opportunities. It was a privilege to journey with Mr. Keith for over two months.
I’m thankful for Mr. Keith who taught me that the destination may be important, but it’s the journey that really matters. And our mentors are all around us. How is your journey? Who is mentoring you today?