In Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, he introduces us to Mentor, a character to whom Odysseus leaves in charge of his household while Odysseus goes off to the Trojan War. Depending on which scholar you subscribe to, Mentor is not an entirely successful guardian. He allows courtiers to woo Odysseus’s wife, Penelope in his absence. It is the appearance of Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, who disguises herself as Mentor, who shakes some sense into Telemachus, Penelope’s son.
"And yet you did not know me, Pallas Athene, Daughter of Zeus, who [will] always stand by your side and guard you through all your adventures."1
Fast forward a few thousand years. What does mentor mean today? What does a mentor look like? I have asked myself those same questions many times – and not just in the past 36 hours as I’m trying to meet our Topic Day deadline. In my mind’s eye, a mentor is someone who’s a lot like me – maybe a little older, a couple more gray hairs, and a few more life experiences under her belt. This mentor has a similar job and balances life successfully between work and home. She has the same issues with being a breadwinner or weight gain or feminism or being a leader in a predominantly male hospital culture. In lazier moments, I can be a cc or carbon copy or her and just follow in her hard won footsteps. No need to reinvent the wheel here.
But that person doesn’t exist, at least, not in my world. Like Athena, my mentors have come in many guises and where I least expect them. Like you, I had assigned advisors, and I learned plenty of pearls from those people. Those advisors were wise and understanding. For me, though, my mentors have had additional almost familial qualities and seem extra invested in their advice. My partner in my first practice was a mentor although I didn’t know it at the time. Warren's keen sense of business acumen guided me through the first three years of life as a private practice pediatrician. At the time, his work holism drove me crazy especially on the day after Christmas when we saw seventy (70) patients each. His philosophy was we’d see “em, as long as they kept calling for appointments.
When I opened my own business, I realized what production really meant. It wasn’t just some fancy word for working your ass off – production pays the overhead and coasts my practice through lean summer schedules. Some days my office feels like a spin-off of my first practice especially the days I have to prod the other staff members to hustle. Warren also taught me to honor my community. The drycleaner who brings all seven children to my office for well child care gets my dry cleaning business in return. Giving back to the same community who supported him was a tenant that he lived by and that rubbed off on me, too. He even introduced me to my future husband. He was that invested in me and my career, and while he was too young to be a father figure, the mentor role suited him perfectly.
Other mentors are not so obvious. If you gave Dr. William Wilkoff my name, he would likely say “who?” I’ve never met the man, but each column he writes in Pediatric News is filled with anecdotes and common sense about his life as a pediatrician. Some are advice to the pediatrician like this Oct. 2003 article:
“As pediatricians for the new millennium, one of the many tasks for which we haven't been formally trained is to help parents learn to say no to their children. It may not have the ring of political correctness, but the health of our nation depends on it. Simply telling parents to “just say no” isn't enough. We must convince them that setting limits can be an important health issue by giving them the facts about obesity, accidents and a sedentary lifestyle. We must support parents by telling them that we understand why saying no can be difficult but that, when done properly, it is the right thing to do.” 2
Other columns comment on the demographic shift in pediatrics:
“Here in Brunswick, I have already been challenged by and benefited from the ramifications of this nationwide gender shift. My partners, Deb and Andrea, offer a perspective that teenage girls appreciate, and they project a warm and fuzzy image that appeals to the parents who find my no-nonsense style too hard edged. ”3
I love the practicalities Dr. Wilkoff discusses monthly. These are things I didn’t grasp in residency, and his warm and self-effacing manner focus on the art of medicine. He focuses on the science, too:
“Researchers recently discovered that there are two peaks for the termination of breast-feeding during the first 4 months post partum. The first occurs during the first week, when one-quarter of mothers stop breast-feeding. The investigators observed, “This timing suggests that a 1-week postpartum visit for well-child care is too late to intervene for many breast-feeding mothers” (Pediatrics 107:543-48, 2001).
It's hard to make the handwriting on the wall any clearer. If we want to protect our patients from kernicterus, and if we truly believe that breast milk is the best first food for babies, then we all should be seeing our patients 2 or 3 days after hospital discharge.”4
The last piece of wisdom I’ve learned from all of these mentors is that my life is MY LIFE. Only I can navigate the path, and to carbon copy is cheating myself out of the opportunity to be a better, more balanced person. I don’t have to see 60 or 70 patients a day to be a good physician, but I need to be available at least 3 days a weeks to give my patients (& staff) some continuity. It’s what I do with their advice that matters, but they’re here for the long haul. I hope you find or have found that kind of support system – one that won’t let you carbon copy. Like Athena, it may be disguised and where you least expect it.
(1) Homer, The Odyssey: 210
(2) Wilkoff, William “‘No’ Problem “Pediatric News October 2003 (Vol. 37, Issue 10, Page 33)
(3) Wilkoff, William G.” The Feminization of Pediatrics” Pediatric News August 2002 (Vol. 36, Issue 8, Page 24)
(4) Wilkoff, William G.” Neonates Can’t Wait” Pediatric News; Volume 35, issue 12, Page 43 (December 2001)