An Imaginary Mentor

I have a picture in one of my exam rooms that has been with me since I first graduated from my residency. It looks a little like a Norman Rockwell painting. In it an older woman and a fortysomething physician sit on a brown leather couch, facing each other, engaged in conversation. Behind them is a picture of a scenic spot in the southern part of our state. An inscription underneath says: “A shared commitment to good health”. In some way this artist’s rendering of a doctor has been a source of inspiration for me over the years. I used to think of him as an imaginary mentor when I was a young country doctor far away from medical school and my residency faculty. I had older, more experienced doctors nearby I could ask for advice now and then, but nobody to monitor my work on a daily basis, and nobody to emulate as I matured in my career.

The mentors I have been fortunate to have over the years have been Scout leaders, teachers, professors in medical school, faculty from my residency I long ago lost contact with, a couple of pastors, an editor and writing teacher and a demanding octogenarian ballroom dance instructor. I never really had an older practicing physician as a mentor, so I found myself often glancing at the doctor in the picture on my exam room wall, imagining that he was listening in on my conversations with my patients. I tried hard to live up to his standards.

In recent years it has become increasingly obvious that I am now older than my imaginary mentor, and that perhaps I need to evolve in terms of what standards I set for myself.

People in our society often grow up without mentors, and many of us live far enough from our parents that we don’t get their advice on how to handle difficulties in our path. We are left to find many things out for ourselves, sometimes the hard way. Yet as physicians we need to be there for our patients, even when we don’t know what ails them or when we are unable to provide good solutions to the problems they bring us. Who do we as physicians turn to? I read about Balint groups in Europe, but not around here, and I don’t know if a group of colleagues can do what a more senior mentor can do.

At this point in my life as a physician I would like to grow not only as a clinician, but also as a teacher; I need a mentor who will help me develop my voice as a teacher of what I have learned during my thirty years as a doctor.

I have a new picture, not yet framed. It is a black and white photograph of Sir William Osler teaching at a patient’s bedside. He is wearing a three-piece suit with a watch chain and a stethoscope. If I can’t find a real-live mentor, I may find myself imagining for a while that Sir William is looking over my shoulder.

3 Responses to “An Imaginary Mentor”

  1. 1 aanoor April 28, 2009 at 3:24 am

    Thanks for such insigtful article and I was inspired. I am a premed and really interested in pursuing medicine and I can not find menotors but your article gave me a great idea I could also use imaginary mentors as a guide.

  2. 2 nerdygirl516 February 10, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece. I’ve written several psychiatrist from all over the country, nearly begging them to become my mentor. I am a college student, and will be the first in my family to graduate with a degree in medicine. So, I need all of the help that I can get!

  3. 3 Ewald August 10, 2017 at 9:41 am

    I’ve been working my way through your archive of posts for the last few weeks now – reading an entry between seeing patients has definitely renewed my conviction to be the best GP I can be and made me reflect on what I see and do on a daily basis – and what a privilege it is.

    As a younger GP in South Africa, I feel that I don’t have much of a mentor to look up to at present in my professional life – therefore your blog means a great deal to me. Keep it up!

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.



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