Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Influence of a Mentor

by: Betzy Childers

When brainstorming about the role mentoring has played in my life, I realized it provided the answer to a question I have asked myself at various overwhelming and wonderful points in my 27 years of life, “How in the world did I end up here?” Now, I am wise enough to realize much of it is due to watchful and caring mentors who have shaped my journey, beginning with my parents.

My experience is an intricate mix of running and academia with goals and dreams to bring the two together.  I grew up as one of four children in a two-bedroom trailer home half a mile outside of a small cattle town in Hereford, Texas. My parents worked constantly, often two jobs, to make ends meet. They exemplified the meaning of determination and hard work, never wavering because they believed in a brighter future for their children. My mother often found work washing dishes, cleaning houses, and even worked nights at a meat-processing factory. Her fifth grade education didn’t impede her from instilling in us the value of working hard, being honest, and always doing our best. My father was off to work road construction before the sun rose and returned home after we had already eaten dinner. They taught me that pursuing a goal is possible when you believe it is a worthwhile cause. This is a valuable lesson that has applied to different challenges I have faced and will apply to challenges I will face on the road to becoming a surgeon.

I first proclaimed I wanted to be a doctor during the final rounds of my third grade science fair. I found it appropriate at the time since I managed to move from a Spanish speaking classroom to an English one. I was making strides. Thank goodness they didn’t ask me how I planned to pay my way through college or medical school because I had no idea. All I knew was I needed to do well in school and I knew I needed to go to college. I continued to do well and soon after entering junior high, I discovered I was also a pretty good runner. My high school coach noticed my talent and began to encourage me to work a bit harder. He continues to be a vital part of my life and a lifelong mentor. Through his vision I learned to commit to a goal, pursue it with purpose, and most importantly, believe in myself, even when others think you are completely out of your mind. I have found this invaluable because there will be occasions when people believe that you don’t belong. I am thankful that I am able to believe beyond their doubt, which is an ability that proves to be important for doctors, especially surgeons. My coach’s guidance helped me earn a fully sponsored education and athletic scholarship to The University of Texas in Austin.  This may have been the first time I thought, “How in the world did I end up here?” I was surrounded by world-class athletes, researchers, instructors and top-notch facilities. I had many once in a lifetime experiences. As a first generation college student and a student athlete, I learned to be increasingly tough, disciplined, and resilient. I returned to train under my high school mentor and earned a spot to represent Team USA in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2012, qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5,000m later that year, and ran in the USA 5,000m Road Championships during my second year of medical school (2013). Pursuing my passions under the guidance of my mentors has encouraged me to dream a little bigger and be a little bolder. Each step has provided me with another tool or another learning experience. Above all else, I continue to have a love for running that remains with me wherever I go. It is something familiar and constant that helps me cope with the stresses of daily life in a healthy way. What a remarkable gift.

I started medical school in 2012 and found myself in disbelief that life was happening to me. Shortly into our first semester we were to meet with faculty in various specialties to begin developing our professional network. Oddly enough, my mentor is a brilliant transplant surgeon. I met with him for the first time outside of the OR at 7:00am. I was wogging (walking + jogging) down the hospital hallway, almost late because I was a little lost. I pretended I was not out of breath and proceeded to introduce myself. Since that day he has continued to be open and available for any question that I might have. He has never discouraged me from any idea or organization I decided to start. He extended an open invitation to team meetings, rounds, and a few surgeries when I didn’t have to be in class. I have had the opportunity to learn by observing him interact with others and with me. In some ways it has been a journey of self-discovery, realizing where I am inevitably meant to be. The transplant floor at our University opens into a long hallway lined with black and white portraits of transplant recipients. Some photos have both the donor and the recipient, both smiling into the camera because they share a unique bond. Medicine and the hands of a particular surgeon helped offer them another chance at life. They were granted a little more time to pursue whatever they believe is worthwhile.  I love walking down this long hallway. It inspires me to dream, to pursue, and ultimately become the surgeon I want to be.

February 5, 2015 marked another unforgettable moment in my life. While on my surgery rotation, I wandered down to my mentor’s OR since I heard mention of a transplant.  He immediately said, “Betzy you should scrub.” I had a flood of emotions. I went from wondering, “what am I doing here” to feeling sure of myself, an affirmative, “I belong here.” I marveled at his skill, his presence in the OR, and the absolute respect his team had for him. “Take the bovie and go through the skin. Get a sense for how it works.”

As I continue toward the completion of my third year, I reflect on my experiences and the mentors who have shaped who I am and who I want to be. Simply speaking, a mentor is someone who advises you. I believe I have received life lessons, tools, experiences, and inspiration from my mentors. They have each guided me to become who I am, developed my strengths, and exposed my weaknesses. They are individuals who I can come to openly with insecurities, questions, and any doubt about what comes next. I believe in the powerful influence one individual can have on another at any given point in life. I actively serve as a mentor for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and speak at high school events whenever I am granted the opportunity. My hope is that something I say or do will inspire them to dream wildly and grants them the courage to pursue what they believe is worthwhile. All of which, many others have done for me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Having it all means having good physical, mental and spiritual health, too!

by: Marie-Christine Wright, JD

“I’m discovering that women can have it all, just not all at the same time.” If we can’t have it all at the same time, is there always room for wellness, and what does being well really mean? There is the obvious answer: physical health. But in addition, we must nurture our mental and spiritual health. A surgical career requires nurturing, but so does a human being: how do we do both, without compromising either? 

First we must view our life’s path in two timelines: the daily minutiae and the long-term. We want to exercise and eat well on a daily basis, which seems impossible when one has all but 10 minutes to shove hospital cafeteria food in one’s mouth, spends 12 or more hours on her feet rounding or in the OR, and has to keep up with her field by reading after work. When are you supposed to exercise if you are in the hospital by 5:30 am and home after 8 pm? While you may not have time for a gym session, you can execute a simple routine at home, whether it’s a brisk jog, yoga, or stretching. Take the stairs at work. Invest in healthy snacks that you can bring to work to prevent cafeteria binging, and spend the extra money to buy healthy prepared meals that are easy to warm up at home, rather than getting take out. Or, just prepare large batches of healthy fare once a week (if you’re like me and easily get bored eating the same thing, freeze single portions of several large dishes so that you can defrost something different each night). 

Admittedly, as a student, fitting in exercise and preparing one’s meals is much more doable. An hour of exercise can actually help break up a marathon study session and refresh the mind. And better eating translates to better thinking. Beyond exercise and eating well, spiritual nurturing comes in the form of community service. I always feel lighter and more fulfilled after spending time helping the community, whether I am assessing inpatients at the local drug abuse recovery shelter, or working on art projects with children. Your community service can, but does not have to, be medical in nature, especially if you have outside interests (side note, having outside interests makes you more interesting as well!).

Long-term, mission trips are important humanitarian work that not only benefit the community you are servicing, but help fill the well of your soul, too. One of the members of the AWS Medical Student Committee, National Chair Carla Valenzuela, recently traveled to Kenya to assist with a Head and Neck surgical mission.  She described her experience as life-changing: “I would recommend a mission trip to anyone in medicine—it opens your eyes to health disparities and how much you can accomplish with patience, thinking resourcefully, and working as hard as possible to improve patient outcomes in a place where there are limited surgical subspecialists.” 

Medical schools are generally supportive of such trips, and students should not be afraid to ask for excused absences and flexibility to accommodate such essential experiences. Residents, too, will find their institutions supportive in planning around mission trips; you just have to know how to formulate your request. If you need to get away and recharge your batteries, take advantage of vacation days. Ultimately, being healthy requires that one set boundaries to protect life outside of work. From a resident’s perspective, “A lot of us lose some of our outside selves to medicine, and we are doing okay, but we could be doing so much better. We shouldn’t just accept ‘okay.’”

Marie-Christine Wright, JD is a medical student at Tulane and the National Vice-Chair of the AWS Medical Student Committee. A nontraditional second year student, Marie-Christine founded a financial firm in Switzerland and obtained her law degree before attending medical school. She has long been interested in pediatric neurosurgery and looks forward to empowering women to pursue careers in surgery.

Interview on Mentoring with Dr. Angela Neville

by: Dr. Angela Neville, MD and Medical Student Katherine Jeffress, MA, MPH

How have mentors positively impacted your career?

Mentors have probably most impacted my career by being examples - good examples.  :)  I feel that my mentors have helped and continue to help shape my career (and sometimes personal) path.  
Originally, my mentors helped me choose a career in medicine and subsequently in a surgical specialty. By finding people that I could identify with and learn from, I was able to begin molding myself to "be like them." My career mentors were initially all men, because there were no women on my immediate teaching faculty.  My junior chief year, my residency finally hired a woman who was wholeheartedly part of our residency.  It was life changing to have a woman to aspire to be like. It was life changing to see male residents respect and feel that a woman could teach them something!! That being said, I feel that women can certainly have both men and/or women mentors.

Ultimately, my mentors continue to impact my career by being there and caring about me as a person. If I have a question about a career decision, I know that my mentors will "have my back" and advise me in a positive way.

What have you learned through your mentoring experience?

I have learned that we all have insecurities and vulnerabilities, but that we are all just trying to be the best we can be. This is true for both men and women. Even the most outwardly accomplished person has their struggles about something and needs to be given the space to ask that question or explore their self doubt.
The majority of the students / residents that have sought out my advice or opinion tend to be women, but I think that is because women tend to look outside of themselves and try and figure things out. I have perhaps been most touched when one of our male residents comes to me asking about how to handle a difficult emotional situation or what operation he should do. It reminds me that being open, approachable, and demonstrating sound judgment makes people feel comfortable asking for help when they need it. This is a huge part of being a good mentor.

What has surprised you about being a mentor?

Maybe, how important this role is to me. Sometimes, when I have thought about leaving academic medicine, the one thing that holds me back is the concept that I can be a role model of strength, competency, and compassion to both men and women and students and residents alike.  
As I mentioned before, there was a single woman surgeon at my teaching institution. Since that time, obviously, more and more women have joined teaching faculties across the country, but things are far from equal and there are still many stereotypes about women in surgery. I can remember when one of my female fellows (when I was a resident) told me she would rather be operated on by a man... Really!?! Men can be good and women can be good, just as men can be crappy and women can be crappy. I am compelled to see that we are evaluated (both in our hospitals and in the community) on merit more than gender. 

How do I get the most out of mentoring?

Keep your eyes open, find the right mentor(s), and learn something from everyone.  
Every surgeon that I encountered during my training taught me something. Sometimes, it was by watching them interact with nursing staff or how they carried themselves in the OR during a crisis. Other times it was by seeing how they discussed a complication with a patient's family member. When I saw something from that person that resonated with me and the surgeon I wished to become I tried to align myself with that person. This concept can work both professionally and personally. Conversely, I think there are also some "anti-mentors" out there -- people who you really want NOT to be like!!  Like I said, learn something from everyone.  

What should a mentee look for in a mentor?

I would advise finding a mentor who you truly feel has your best interest at heart. Sometimes, this relationship takes a bit of time to develop, and you may need to put out a few feelers, but it is worth it in the end. Find a person who you trust so that you can be vulnerable without feeling uncomfortable or that your trust will be violated. Several mentors may be needed to fulfill different needs.  For example, maybe you have really identified with a faculty member about how to achieve in the realm of research / academic medicine, but you seek a different direction in your personal life. Another mentor could be particularly useful here. The bottom line is that a good mentor will care about you.

Why do you believe mentoring is so important?

A career in medicine is not 'normal' in many ways. Doctors choose a different way of life. While many people out there have several careers in their lifetime, many of us chose medicine in our 20s and have not looked back. We went to school for years and accumulated significant debt. Maybe we delayed marriage or children for our career. Maybe we have neglected family and friends. More over, a surgical career can be exceptionally demanding and requires a constant giving of self.  

I feel like mentoring is incredibly important because it helps normalize this unique career path and offer advice that we cannot seek from people outside of this realm. My parents to this day do not understand what happens when I am on-call. "You mean you are spending the night in the hospital?" Mentors can provide insight about all aspects of life as a surgeon. Just the other day, I had one of our most accomplished (and intimidating) orthopedic surgeons give me sage advice about how to balance a busy life in surgery with a young child at home (my first and only son is 16 months old). I was amazed that he wanted to take a moment to pass on his experience to me, and it was particularly valuable. He is certainly someone that I felt it worthwhile to listen to, and his words have made me reevaluate my current actions. Mentoring can often help one work through all sorts of on the job struggles (am I doing the correct operation, should I look for a new job, how many days will I need for maternity leave, etc).  

What advice do you have for future mentors?

My biggest piece of advice is to NOT advise, but to allow the mentee the freedom to make the decision they want to make. People know what they want. They know what is important to them. For some, it is to be the next president of the ACS.  For others, it is to be closer to their family and work shorter hours. Both of these options are OK!! I feel like good mentors ask the mentees the right questions so that the mentee can come to their own truth. Often it involves giving the mentee the confidence to make their own decisions!!  

I can recall several students in my office in tears because faculty had told them they should really pick a certain specialty but they didn't want to do that and were afraid of disappointing people. Or a resident in serious angst because somebody told them to rank a certain fellowship first, but they really didn't want to go there. For the love of Pete!! It is their life. And we are more influential than we think. Those students or residents (and their family and friends) are the only ones that are going to have to live with their decision when they are long gone from our training institutions. How dare we put our personal biases on their life decisions?  

I guess I am just saying, be careful when you are mentoring. Mentors can be very influential, and I think it is extremely important that we are guiding our mentees in a direction that they truly want to go and not in a way that simply will be pleasing to us.

What do you think are the characteristics that make a good mentee?

This is a really hard question for me because there are so many types of mentoring relationships. I feel I have had many transient interactions with students or residents that came and went, but hopefully in that moment, I was a good mentor. So for those interactions, being a good mentee meant having the courage to come forward and ask the important question for one’s self at that time. 

In some of my more lasting mentoring relationships, often the mentees had some similar qualities to me and we were able to truly get to know one another. In this way, I knew what drove them both professionally and personally, so I was able to help guide decisions in the correct way. Thus, I am not sure there is a characteristic that makes one a "good mentee," but feel that the relationship you have with your mentor should come naturally with the right person.

I guess my one plea is patience with the mentor. (For example, it has taken me longer than I expected to do this blog. :/)  We are all insanely busy, so respect that when you approach a mentor for advice you need to make sure you try and give them the time and space to help you. I will always put my work down for a few minutes to help my mentees, but I may need to reschedule to really get down to the nitty gritty of the problem. I have always been incredibly grateful when my mentors have made time for me, but I try and make sure I make this exchange convenient for them. 

Final thoughts...

At the end of the day mentoring helps develop relationships in surgery that can last a lifetime.  These relationships are rewarding to the mentee through their successes and the mentor who can watch with a smile as their mentee achieves. Mentoring humbles us as we help people through crisis and comforts us when our time of need arises. For me, mentoring is often a friendship that develops with another in a different life phase, but once established can certainly outlive the confines of that original setting.  A special thank you to those who have and continue to mentor me and to my mentees who continue to enrich my life. Thank you to my student, Katherine Jeffress, who asked me to do this post. And thank you for reading. Best wishes for a healthy, happy life.

Dr. Angela L. Neville, MD is a practicing surgeon in the Division of Trauma, Acute Care Surgery, and Surgical Critical Care at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She is also the Interim Program Director, General Surgery Residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and an Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.