I went through medical school at the edge of the first large wave of women admitted since the forties. In the 1970s, the whole concept of mentoring was murky. Daniel Levinson’s book on adult male development had highlighted the importance of mentorship, mostly in the business context and mostly from the point of view of the value of being a mentor. We called our mentors advisors. In college, my relation to my advisor was distant—I doubt she could have picked me from a police lineup—and medical schools had not yet recognized the need.
Beyond the deficits of the system, being a young woman in an environment where all the potential mentors were older men, I felt uneasy about seeking a mentor. The boundary between mentor and puppetmaster was too thin. Though I aspired to an academic career, I knew that the careers of my possible mentors were not for me. I wanted a family, and I was not prepared to work evenings and weekends on articles that might add weight to my resume but only add burden to what others were expected to read. How to be creative, individual, and sane were my goals, and the few senior faculty who reached out to me, or who I approached, could not really speak to my condition. The best one of them came up with was that I was promising but an underachiever.
Fortunately, though I lacked mentors, I had models aplenty. I admired extravagantly the men who taught me, mainly by example, how to be a teaching doctor. I remember seeing my physical diagnosis tutor examining a patient’s abdomen. He was a big guy with huge hands, and the gentleness with which he showed us the liver edge moved me almost to tears. I knew my hands would never look like that, and that I would have to struggle not to seem sharp and small touching people, but I did learn that a doctor’s touch could warm and heal as well as probe. Another tutor took us to see a man (whom he did not previously know) who was recovering from a stroke. The man’s worried wife was standing behind him. My tutor managed to demonstrate the extent of the patient’s continued paralysis, while his words to the patient and his wife conveyed how much he seemed to improving. Neither of these men will ever know the impact that observing their blended skill and compassion had on me, but neither will I ever forget those or other moments that so nourished my growth from student to doctor.
Now I am in a position to mentor students myself, and I find it tough going. They are so silent, so fearful of expressing themselves, of making errors or seeming uncertain. I can only hope that they see me the way I saw the people I admired. Perhaps someday something I did or said will be communicated to other students as an example of what good mentoring can be about.