Life in Vanderbilt’s Colleges and Learning Communities

Editor’s Note: The following post is the second in a series on the Colleges at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, featured in the September issue. Read the first post and check back Friday for the final post in this series.

By: Benjamin S. Heavrin, MD, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

It’s July 2013, and I’m just now reading Cutting For Stone. As I stroll through the first few chapters, Verghese is exposing some major themes vital to the practice of medicine that we, too, will soon explore with our first year students.

The class of 2017 arrives in about three weeks. As part of their introductory Foundations of the Profession experience, we sneak peak what their medical school journey may look like. Along the way, we’ll jump into writings from great contemporary physician writers–Gawande, Verghese, and Sharon, to name a few. This introduction begins with mandatory summer reading. Cutting For Stone is their requirement. And it’s also mine.

I’m entering my sixth year as faculty in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. I’m also entering my third year as a mentor in Batson College, part of Vanderbilt’s Colleges program, described in a recent Academic Medicine article. I joined the Colleges because I wanted to get to know our medical students before they customarily meet me for the first time during their fourth year emergency medicine clerkship. I figured I had a few stories to share about my junior faculty ride. Besides, I enjoy career counseling, I have some background training in the medical humanities, and I am a proponent of our progressive student wellness platform on campus. Being a mentor seemed like a good fit for me.

Little did I realize, however, that my role as mentor in the Colleges would transform my own professional development.

Earlier this week, a few of our rising second years emailed me about logistics for the College Cup, a two day spirited competition during which the students trade in their laptops and textbooks for soccer balls, dance costumes, and running shoes. I, too, get to trade in my scrubs for a head-to-toe blue Batson costume.

Several of our rising fourth years are grinding through their personal statements for residency, many of which have migrated to my desk, awaiting my informal comments and suggestions. A few others are struggling with specialty choices, and I’ll spend some time this week intently listening to the reasons why one specialty may seem more appealing than another.

Later this week, all the college mentors will finalize the curriculum content for our learning communities and colloquium small group teaching sessions.

Which brings me back to Cutting For Stone. How does Verghese so delicately expose these crucial themes that we, too, will tackle with our students this year? What does it really mean to be a doctor? What do you need to know about our profession that you can’t hear in a lecture hall or memorize from a text book? How can you fail when you strive to be perfect? 

When I started as a College mentor, I thought I could handle these “Verghese-esque” questions. But they are hard to answer on the fly, especially when 25 sets of young, impressionable eyes are waiting to hear your response.

  • “Once you’re an attending, you don’t make big mistakes anymore, do you?”
  • “Do you ever get upset at work and say things you wish you hadn’t?”
  • “What happens when you don’t know what to do for a sick patient?”
  • “Have you ever not told the truth at work?”
  • “The stress of the ER never comes home with you, does it?”
  • “How do you give great care to a drunk driver knowing he just caused a fatal car wreck?”

The list goes on. And as I have answered these questions in front of my audience over the years, the answers remind me that I, too, have a lot to learn. Ultimately, however, the questions bring me to a level of intellectual and professional growth that I wouldn’t have without the Colleges. Being a mentor is turning me into a better doctor, a better teacher, and even a better man outside the hospital.

How fascinating that Verghese’s Stone, Hema, and Ghosh wrestle with the same questions that challenge me. These questions are making me a better doctor. And they’re making our medical students better doctors-to-be.

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    August 9, 2013 at 6:17 AM

    […] the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, featured in the September issue. Read the first and second posts in this […]

  2. Kemi Tomobi
    August 9, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Hmmmm, there is something about emergency medicine doctors and writing that always seems to go together!  Famous doctors such as Zoanne Clack (Grey’s Anatomy) and Tyeese Gaines  (Grio) come to mind, as well as some emergency medicine physicians I have had the opportunity to meet through creative writing opportunities.

    I like the idea of learning communities because it allows the students to address certain themes for discussion. I also like that Vanderbilt medical students are exposed to physician writers.  In this era, there is a rise in physician-journalists, and increased awareness for these opportunities would be helpful.

    Finally, I believe the discussion on mentorship is well done, it shows that practicing physicians are indeed human, and not perfect, which allows medical students to better identify with physicians.


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