We All Need a Compass

I was delighted to be asked to be the AOA visiting professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine this week.  The following is the speech I gave at the induction banquet.  For those who are not in medicine, Alpha Omega Alpha is the “Phi Beta Kappa” of medical school, an honor society that recognizes students who are at the top of their class… but who have also demonstrated service, leadership and professionalism. 

 

What an honor that I have been asked to be here tonight for this celebration!  I am in the company of superstars and great friends, both new and old … what could be better?

I want to start by congratulating the junior AOA, resident and faculty inductees.  For the junior AOA inductees, you are clearly on a strong path to excellence which will serve you well.  Although I’m going to address my remarks to the graduating seniors, please know that I haven’t forgotten you or what it took for you to be here tonight.  For the resident and faculty inductees, you have been singled out for this very particular honor because you are amazing clinicians, educators and role models.  Thank you for what you do.

I thought I’d start with a short description of what it means to be inducted into AOA from the AOA website.

“Election to Alpha Omega Alpha is an honor signifying a lasting commitment to scholarship, leadership, professionalism, and service. A lifelong honor, membership in the society confers recognition for a physician’s dedication to the profession and art of healing.”

Induction into AOA is a major milestone in your career and, based on your predecessors in the organization, it also represents the beginning of a remarkable journey.  It’s a journey that you won’t take alone.  If history is a guide, you represent the future leaders of medicine, which means you’ll be guiding others on this journey as well.

That’s the reason I decided I should talk about how to use a compass.

 

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I suspect that you have all used a compass before but, like me, you probably haven’t given it much thought.  A traditional compass works by aligning a needle to the magnetic pulls of the north and south poles.  Although we really could use either north or south as a reference point, by convention we use north. I’m not going to get into the differences between true north and magnetic north*… suffice it to say that because a compass lets us know where north is, we can calculate the difference between “true north” and where we are heading, which in nautical terms, is called our “absolute bearing”.

So where am I going with this?  Why is it important to have a point of reference, a “true north”, as you start your journey through residency into the practice of medicine?

I know you’ve already been on services where the focus seemed to be more on checking the boxes on the scut list than on caring for the patients… and you had the feeling that there was something missing.

That’s why you need a “true north”.

You’ve also been on committees or in organizations that seemed to worry more about policies and procedures than how to use those policies and procedures for the better good.

That’s why you need a “true north.”

And I know that you have experienced days where you manifested one or more of the three cardinal symptoms of burnout, days when you lost enthusiasm for your work, felt that patients were objects rather than people and/or decided everyone around you could do a better job than you could.

That’s why you need a “true north”.

Unless you know where your “true north” is, you can’t navigate… you can’t make the adjustments that keep you on course.

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The single most important piece of advice I can give you as you start on this journey is to make sure you know where “true north” is for you.  As each of you define your own personal “true north”, you will share things in common.  For example, loving your family and friends, being kind, and trying to make a difference.  But even though there will be common themes, “true north” will be a little different for each of you.  This is not as abstract a concept as you might think. It is not only possible to articulate your goals, what gives you meaning and how you define your own integrity, it’s important to do so. And, yes, I mean write them down, think about them, and revise them when necessary.  When you hit the inevitable days of stormy weather, having a compass that it true is critically important.

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In reading about compasses, I also learned that the traditional compass has to be held level to work.  I learned that “when the compass is held level, the needle turns until, after a few seconds to allow oscillation to die out, it settles into its equilibrium orientation.”

What a great image.  You have to be still to let the compass equilibrate.  You have to be mindful to look at the needle to calculate your absolute bearing.  And then you have to take that information and apply it to correct your course.  And to do so, you have to hold the compass level, which I think is a great metaphor for taking care of yourself – physically, emotionally and spiritually.

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There is not a lot in the day to day life of an intern, resident or practicing physician that teaches us the skill of focusing on that still point, on getting our bearings to make sure we don’t veer off course.

It’s not a trivial problem.  Veering off course can result in doing something we don’t want to do or, more importantly, becoming someone we don’t want to be.  More importantly for those of you just starting on this journey, a small error in navigation at the beginning of a journey results in a very large error when you arrive.  That’s why, as you start this journey, it’s so important to know what “true north” is for you.

As you articulate what your “true north” is, I would also urge you to translate it into something that is easy to remember for those times that you are making a decision in a difficult moment.   For me, my “true north” as a physician has been distilled into three rules that I try to follow and that I teach my trainees.

Rule 1:  Do what’s right for the patient.

Rule 2:  Look cool doing it.

Rule 3:  Don’t hurt anything that has a name.

Let me expand just a little…

Rule 1 means always do what’s right for the patient.  Even if you are tired, even if others disagree, even if you don’t get paid, even if it’s not technically “your” patient – do what’s right.  It also means developing an life-long method to deliberately read and study so you know the right thing to do.  And it means doing all of this with compassion and integrity.

Rule 2, “Look cool doing it”, means practicing your art until you look cool.  If you are surgeon, make sure your movements look like Tai Chi and that you have no wasted motion.  If you are a pathologist, learn all the variations on the themes that cells can create. No matter what your specialty, read about each of your patients, prepare for all cases, procedures and conferences deliberately and diligently. “Look cool doing it” also means don’t lose your cool.  Be professional, which at its core is just another way of saying kindness and integrity matter.

Rule 3, “Don’t hurt anything that has a name”, certainly means don’t cut the ureter if you are doing a colectomy, but it means more than that because…

You have a name.

Your significant other has a name.

Your institution, your friends, your family all have names.

You are about to embark on the amazing and challenging journey of residency… I know you have a sense of trepidation and also a sense of incredible excitement.  Everyone in this room who has been there remembers and, to be honest, is probably a little jealous. What an amazing time to start a career in medicine.

Congratulations on all you have accomplished so far. I wish you smooth sailing and a compass that is true.

 

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*Because I am using “true north” as a metaphor, the scientists will have to forgive me.  There is a difference between “true north”, which is the actual north pole and “magnetic north” which is what a compass shows.  Here’s a great link that explains this further:  Magnetic North vs Geographic (True) North Pole