The journey of a Thomasian physician

Column-Dr Anthony Leachon photoPreventive Health Education

By Anthony C. Leachon, MD

(Excerpts of speech delivered during the UST Hospital White Coat Rites last January 27, 2016)

WHEN I look around this new and modern auditorium , I think of my UST Medicine days in the early 1980s. And as I look at you today, it looks like a huge family gathering – I see a large family of achievers and distinctive descendants that take pride in their shared heritage. This occasion becomes more meaningful with the fulfillment of our dreams in the presence of friends, mentors, and significant others.

Today, I speak to you as a co-wayfarer, co-believer, co-dreamer, albeit older, and share with you some reflections and recollections of my own journey as a resident physician. I speak to you, as an elder brother, who is both proud of what you have attained and accomplished yet a bit anxious about the countless more challenges that you have to endure as you continue your journey.

The one thing we always hear from our mentors and measured by your internship, residency, or fellowship program is hard work or effort. However there are several issues here.

First, how do we grade effort – by staying up and going home late at night? Or the long and tedious endorsements on a daily basis versus learning at the bedside with the patient as the real teacher?

Second, assuming we want to put premium on hard work, how do we measure hard work? Some people believe that having a good work ethic equates with willingness to slave away for 60 to 80 hours a week. Though it is classified as a virtue it can also be considered career masochism – we need work-life balance in our professional career. I have seen doctors forgetting their families, their spirituality, and even their own physical health.

UST has given you something better that you need to enhance as you venture on your journey – that’s passion. There’s a huge difference though. Hard workers do things because they have to. People with passion do things quickly with success because they want to.

Education: Knowledge vs innovation

Doctor comes from the Latin word – docere which means “to teach”. Teaching is a valuable opportunity to be involved in the training of tomorrow’s doctors and our future colleagues, not only by imparting knowledge, but also by providing them with the real world experience on what it is to be a doctor and, of course, a teacher.

Grades by default measure knowledge: Identification, one or more completion, multiple choice, enumeration, etc. Well, these measure your knowledge and how much you know; in education, basic knowledge is a facade. It is not the most important faculty. Unfortunately, creativity is harder to grade and measure and innovation, almost impossible.

Of all the ways in which my mother impressed upon me was the value of listening and engaging people; perhaps the most profound is this: She taught me everyone had a story worth listening to. This is another way of saying that someone has something to teach.

Some people will not be interested in making that connection. You will find that many respond, however—because they’re polite, or friendly, or perhaps in need of that human contact.

Ask a friendly casual question. Ours is a job of talking to strangers. Why not learn something about them.

So never stop learning; never stop asking questions; and never forget that medicine is an art as well as a science practiced by doctors and researchers who bring to the bedside – and to the bench – not only technology and training, but also their humanity, caring, and concern.

Patients do not put their trust in machines or devices. They put their trust in you. You have already spent years studying, training, doing research, and seeing patients. And you likely have many more years of education before you.

But please remember that the more skilled you become, the more specialized you become, and the more dependent on technology you become – the easier it becomes to lose your humanity, forget your compassion, and ignore your instincts.

You, my dear colleagues, are coming of age in an amazing time. It is the worst and the best of times. As you leave the institution you have technology at your fingertips that members of my batch never had.

Over the next generation you, Thomasian graduates, will lead a new wave of innovation and apply it to your world. Which problems will you decide to solve? If your world is wide, you can create the future we all want. If your world is narrow, you may create the future the pessimists fear.

I started learning the art of healing in UST, Manila Doctors Hospital, and UP – PGH that if we’re going to make our optimism matter to everyone and empower people everywhere, we have to see the lives of those most in need. If we have optimism, but we don’t have empathy – then it doesn’t matter how much we master the secrets of science, we’re not really solving problems; we’re just working on puzzles.

I think most of you have a broader worldview than I had at your age. You can do better at this than I did. If you put your hearts and minds to it, you can surprise the pessimists. We can’t wait to see it.

Leaders with a heart

Lastly, please allow me to leave with a final word of advice. Your training here in UST wasn’t just meant to make you good clinicians, teachers, or researchers. You were trained to be something more – to be leaders with a HEART.

Maybe we didn’t train you by words, but certainly by example from your great mentors and professors. Let your heart break. It will change what you do with your attitude and optimism.

On a trip to Mindoro, a place where I grew up, I remember vividly a wonderful past – my dad was a brilliant lawyer and my mom was a hardworking businesswoman selling rice or palay. I went home with my wife and three kids (my eldest son is finishing his MBA, my daughter and youngest son are medical students here) for the grand high school reunion.

I met a group of high school students from our neighborhood when my childhood friend and batch mate said to me: “Do you ever feel like we are just somebody else’s kids whose parents evaded their responsibilities, that we’re all just leftovers?”

My high school batch mate made my heart break – and still do. And the empathy intensifies if I admit to myself: “That could be me.”

When I talk with the patients I meet during my hospital rounds, I see that there is no difference at all in what we want for our children. The only difference is our ability to give it to them and spend time with them.

What accounts for that difference?

Marge, my wife and I talk about this with our kids at different times at the dinner table on different occasions. Marge worked incredibly hard and took risks and made sacrifices for my success. But there is another essential ingredient of success, and that ingredient is luck – absolute and total luck.

When were you born? Who were your parents? Where did you grow up? None of us earned these things. They were given to us by our hardworking parents.

When we strip away our luck and privilege and consider where we would be without them, it becomes easier to see someone who’s poor and sick and say “that could be me.” This is empathy; it tears down barriers and opens up new doors for optimism.

So here is my passionate appeal to you: As you enter or leave UST, take your brilliance, your optimism, and your empathy and go change the world in ways that will make thousands of others optimistic as well.

You don’t have to rush. Do it in God’s time. You have careers to work on, ice castles to build, spouses to meet and marry. That’s enough for now.

But in the course of your careers and in your journeys, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; face and accept it – turn toward it.

That is the moment when change is born. Seize that moment. That moment is now.

Vital Signs Issue 84 Vol. 4, February 1-29 2016