First-place essay: Paying it forward: When the mentee becomes the mentor

“C’mon, doc, can we get this show on the road?” the anesthesiologist asks optimistically. I couldn’t have planned a longer cystectomy if I had tried. The abdominal adhesions were a tangled mess. The bulky tumor was more invasive than anticipated. The pelvic lymph nodes bled as if avenging the dissection of their brethren.

Across the table, Andy—my medical student who has looked forward to observing this operation all week—is nervously preparing to close the midline incision.

Tick, tick, tick. The clock taunts us with each passing second.

Andy fumbles with the needle driver.

I hear a chorus of suggestions: Why don’t you close, doc? Yeah, so we can get out before midnight. He can sew next time!

Andy sets the instruments down, offering them to me.

My mind conjures a sepia-toned memory. I was standing at the operating table. It had been a long day. Everyone else’s eyes were on me, the surgery clerk, while my own eyes stared blankly at the instruments in my hands, betraying the hours I had spent practicing.

“We’ll never get out of here tonight if he keeps this up,” the attending surgeon mumbled to the resident opposite me. “I need those clinic notes dictated, and you still have to see the consults.”

I passed the needle driver to the resident.

“You finish this up, and let him practice some other time,” the attending directed.

The resident paused. “He’s already practiced with me, and he’s done a good job,” he replied. Then to me, assuredly, unwaveringly, “It’s your turn to operate.”

My surgical mask hid a smile that spread unexpectedly across my face. I was overcome by a sudden sense of belonging. Yes, I was the slowest in the room; I might make a mistake and have to start over; the fastest way out was to move on. But what a thrill to have that proverbial hand on my shoulder, to be given a chance to try! Readying my hands and sharpening my focus, I felt for the first time what it means to be a surgeon.

My mind clears; my attention returns. I place the needle driver back in Andy’s hand.

“Go on, Andy,” I say, echoing the resident who had given me my chance, “It’s your turn to operate.”

As his needle weaves back and forth, I’m reminded of the mentors who stepped aside—or stepped up—so that I could become more skilled, experienced, and compassionate. Many of us remember a calling to surgery and its appeal to those steady of hand and courageous of heart. What is not as evident—and what I’ve come to understand as I grow from student to teacher and from trainee to surgeon—is that our transformation is anchored by those who guide our hands to be steady and inspire us with their courage.

As Andy ties the final knot, his mask barely concealing a proud smile, I feel profoundly honored by the commitment of my mentors and once again humbled by the promise of our profession.

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