Class of '61 Alumni Reflections

Fifty-Year Journeys

Physicians' Journeys Since Medical School Graduation

Introduction

For our 50th medical school reunion, the planning committee of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry Class of 1961 endorsed a suggestion to ask for volunteers to contribute a reflective “memoir” of his or her “journey” since graduation,

…recounting as you wish and are comfortable writing about, what brought you to a career in medicine; your aspirations both at the time of entering medical school and at the time of graduation; the various challenges, twists and turns, moments that changed you life; the “ups and downs,” successes and failures in your life, your career, your relationships; …how you dealt with adversity when it arose; how you preserved for yourself the joy of medicine; who your role models are and why; and reflections on all of this and lessons learned. And, of course, where warranted, how your experience at Rochester contributed to the physician and person you have become.

The committee felt that a collection of these memoirs in small book form would be a valuable gift and asset to each of our classmates, the School of Medicine and the University at large. In addition, we felt it might be a valuable gift to current students and/or those graduating each year, demonstrating that life and career are not a straight road, but rather a series of challenges that one faces and the ways one deals with them, and an accumulation of lessons learned from all of this.

Twenty-three classmates responded with essays that are fascinating and touching.

Henry Smith wisely pointed out that “[f]or all of us, this 50-year journey was shaped more than 50 years ago.” Some who contributed saw the challenge to write, as Jim Granger observed, “[as] a useful tool for not only looking backward, but also forward.” With honesty the contributors have shared details of their life, their careers and their relationships.  These are “self-portraits” in words: each of the pieces stands alone, a narrative of the author’s own story, and also a reflection of the author’s goals, values, personal and professional, and reflections on the meaning of a career in medicine.  In addition, all the essays together emphasize a number of universal qualities of a medical career at its best and the special value of the Rochester experience.  While most of the essays were untitled, some contributors added a title which remains with the piece, since it adds to the flavor of what they wrote.

From the essays, here are some observations about the makeup of our class:

  • The different paths leading to a career in medicine: not only those who came directly from college, but those who transferred from other careers and academic pursuits
  • The variety of backgrounds: Though not especially diverse in the way current classes are, nonetheless we came from diverse family cultures and experiences. Our class varied in age, many were children or grandchildren of immigrants, and at least two were themselves immigrants. Some faced the unique experience (and feelings of isolation) of being a woman or the only African-American in the class. Some, though not the majority, were married, and some of those married had children during their medical school years
  • The dramas going on in our individual lives during our medical school years: Many dealt with personal or family illnesses and with losses.
  • The importance of role models in bringing us to a career in medicine, including parents, other relatives, or an especially attentive, kind and skilled physician who cared for them or their family

In short, we were not defined simply by our status as medical students. Of the unique Rochester experience, certain themes stand out:

  • At Rochester, how we learned was as important as what we learned.  Many of us can recall not only specific lessons, but also from whom we learned them and in what situation and setting.
  • Relationships: Rochester taught us that relationships with patients are equally important as diagnostic and therapeutic skills. And at Rochester, we learned by example how to form those relationships.
  • Favorite teachers, who became our role models and taught us not only how to learn, but also, by their example, how to teach.  Not surprisingly, many of us have become teachers, either full-time or as volunteers.
  • The biopsychosocial model: The medicine-psychiatry liaison group, trained doubly as internists and psychiatrists, taught us how to ask open-ended questions, how to listen, the importance of the patient’s story and psychological and social issues, and how to find out about all of them in order to make a more accurate diagnosis and appropriate plan of treatment and to care for the patient.  Taught throughout the four years and on every clinical service, the biopsychosocial model was the way we looked at all patients, whether they were on a psychiatry or a surgery ward, in the clinic or in the emergency room. It was part of the culture of the medical school. At each class reunion dinner, when we talk about what was the most important lesson or memory we took away from Rochester, almost all of us—internists, surgeons, family physicians, psychiatrists alike—talk about George Engel and the liaison group. 

 

In these 50-year journeys since graduation, certain observations are prominent, mentioned by more than a few of us:

  • The real meaning of life-long learning: Paul Kindling said it well as he wrote about “…tricks I had learned from many patients, nurses, colleagues, ways to deal with patients and their families when they were in trouble, how to avoid unnecessary steps in the operating room.” As reflective, wise practitioners, we learned from experience, from our colleagues, and from our patients.
  • The multitude of paths: toward practice in the community and in academia; in diverse specialties and research; service to the medical community in committee work and leadership; and service to the larger community. It should be no surprise that so many of us, inspired by our Rochester teacher/role models, have taught.  Even after retirement, many of us have found fulfillment in other careers, part-time or full-time, and volunteer work.
  • The importance of the relationship with patients and the appreciation of that relationship: Eric Butler wrote that “I found that what George Engel and John Romano taught, which I thought would be valuable only to GPs and internists, was essential to being a good surgeon.”   And Carl Andrus wrote: “Every encounter with a new patient was like reading a poem.”  That in itself is poetry.
  • The impact of our care on our patients: our technical skills; our reasoning skills;  our ability, even when we have made a decision, to take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is there yet another way to look at this?” And the impact of our humanity.  Sometimes our patients let us know; sometimes we have no idea of how important we were to that patient.
  • The drama of our personal lives.  Our stories are filled with challenges, successes, failures and losses, and how we dealt with them.
  • And, not least, the sheer privilege of being a physician, of touching, and being touched by, others’ lives.

In short, our medical school experience at Rochester has had a huge impact on us, and, through us, on our patients.And so this collection of journeys is a gift on many unanticipated levels:

  • It is our gift to each other.
  • It is our gift to ourselves, an opportunity to reflect on our experiences, our values and our relationships.
  • It is a gift and a tribute to the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and to our teachers who were our role models and mentors.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all who contributed: Carl Andrus, Jim Barter, Bob Burke, Eric Butler, Bob Caldwell, Paul Fine, Stan Goldman, Jim Granger, Bill Hallenbeck, Mike Kaplan, Paul Kindling, Mark Levy, Judy Hood McKelvey, Jerry Metz, Carol Nadelson, John Nicholson, Dick Rubinson, Bob Schwartz, David Shander, Sheldon Simon, Henry Smith, and Ron Smith; I’m also on the list. Each one of the journeys is fascinating. To put it simply, our class is a very interesting group of people.

Thanks also to Tim Sukhenko, Assistant Director of Advancement for the School of Medicine and Dentistry, for helping to organize all of this, and to his colleague, Kathy Dietz, for overseeing the actual production of the book.

It has been a privilege to oversee this project. I have been touched by the stories. You will be, too.

Laurence A. Savett '61M (MD)

October 2011

 

Essays

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