Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living — if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” — Denzel Washington
There are times in the course of writing this column that I am for want of a topic. Strangely enough, when this has happened in the past and, as it has for this editorial now, seemingly unrelated circumstances will weave themselves into an obvious direction for my musings. While I am not particularly superstitious, nor do I believe in divine intervention, I do find this situation pleasantly mysterious. Perhaps I have been doing this column long enough now that I am prepared to see meaning in the otherwise mundane and unrelated circumstance of life.
Earlier this week as my editorial deadline approached, I found myself struggling to find an appropriate topic to hopefully inform and inspire the U.S. Medicine readers. While driving to work, I sat thinking in traffic (the Washington DC Beltway provides plenty of time for slow paced introspection) about possible topics. Many ideas came and went, most often due to the fact that I had already covered them or they had nothing even I could associate as remotely medically related. Somewhat dejected, I drove into my work parking lot no closer to a topic for this month’s column.
As I entered my office, I found a bright new shiny textbook from the Borden Institutes Military Medical Textbook Series lying on my desk chair — it was mine! Combat Anesthesiology: The First 24 Hours1 was born of a conversation in a British combat support hospital tent at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, between myself and British co-editor, Peter Mahoney, about the need to record all we had learned about combat trauma anesthesia in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It was a monumental undertaking for the past five years, complicated by the realities of coordinating authors in the United Kingdom with those in the United States (two countries separated by a common language). There was absolutely no monetary incentive for all of the authors involved beyond the realization that failing to pass on what we had learned over years of conflict would be dishonorable and indefensible.
This textbook will serve as a starting point for anesthesia providers exposed to the consequences of combat in the next conflict, and in that sense I was “paying forward” the knowledge I received from textbook writers in my past that sustained me during deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding the tangible book, the result of all that collaborative effort, was intensely satisfying.
Later that same day, I passed an area in our office where we display the pictures of employees who began their careers working for the Defense and Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management (DVCIPM.org) and went on to various professional schools to continue their careers in medicine or science. The wall is filled with the images of bright, young faces that are brimming with future possibility — possibility made possible by DVCIPM, an organization I have had the good fortune to direct for years. Although DVCIPM receives no special credit or accolade for these young careers launched, this special wall represents what I am most proud of when listing the organization’s accomplishments. In a small but significant way, DVCIPM was nurturing medicine’s future.
Finally, that weekend I traveled up to Bethel, ME, to attend the high school graduation of a niece from Gould Academy. My niece had more than her share of challenges as a youngster but overcame those challenges during her years at Gould. I was hardly prepared for the confident and talented young woman, ready to make her mark on the world, who presented herself at graduation. Throughout the weekend I was impressed by all the administrators, teachers and friends who had impacted on her development, in ways large and small, as we celebrated the impending graduation. During the actual graduation ceremony, the meaning of all these events jelled in my mind, and I knew what I was going to write about: the importance of mentorship.
The common theme, whether it is the production of a textbook, the organizational influence that propels employees forward or the fresh potential of a newly graduated high school student ready to take on college, is the overwhelming fact that these successes are not individual accomplishments. The most important successes in our lives, the things that we use to define our identity, the activities that lead to the most meaningful events in the human experience are usually the product of many different and diverse individual human interactions. I cannot help myself with the cliché, but it really does take a village to do anything of much significance.
I am convinced that the most important responsibility and duty of anyone who possesses a skill, professional or otherwise, is the passing on of the skill to those who come after. I would suggest that the fullest expression of any profession is the ability to pass that vocation on to others who not only improve upon the profession but also internalize the need to pass what was learned along. I have, by many accounts, had a successful career in medicine, but of the accolades I have received throughout the years, the ones I remember most intensely and reflect upon most often are the times when someone has called me a mentor.
In my own journey for meaning in life, few concepts are as powerful as that embodied in the title of mentor, a title which must be selflessly earned. Perhaps mentoring is just another expression for love, which many consider the only real meaning in life.
1 http://www.cs.amedd.army.mil/borden/Portlet.aspx?id=4f129d5e-973b-48d9-9fb1-514e6daf90e6. Accessed June 8, 2015