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Monday Feb 25, 2019

Finding the Right Mentor Is Worth the Quest

When I sat down to write this post on mentoring, I was uncertain how to begin. I had a serious case of writer's block, and my usual remedy for that ailment is to walk away from the computer and do something unrelated to the task. So, I went to my mailbox, and there among the usual junk mail was a large manila envelope addressed to me from my niece Ashley. In it was a magazine she had found while cleaning her room. The magazine, Pro Health (Vol. 18; 2; 1998), was published by Miami Valley Hospital, where I did my residency training. On the cover was a picture of a much younger me standing beside my mentor Junius Cromartie, M.D. The lead article was titled "Mentoring: The Artful Side of Medicine." I immediately felt my writer's block thawed by a flood of memories.

[mentoring key]

Not unlike random pieces of mail, mentors can appear in our lives without notice in the form of a family member, trusted friend, teacher, professional acquaintance, or even someone you would never suspect. The magazine article highlighted this fact: "In Dr. Cromartie, Gary LeRoy had found an exceptional role model. The tall, soft-spoken, North Carolina native was only the second African-American surgeon in Dayton when he opened his practice in 1957."

News flash, folks: The individual who launched my pursuit of a career in medicine was not a family physician. Dr. Cromartie was an iconic professional figure in Dayton, Ohio. Seeing that I was desperate and confused about how to navigate the application process for medical school, a friend suggested I contact Dr. Cromartie for assistance. Reluctantly, I did so, expecting him to either decline my request or only grant me 10 to 15 minutes of his precious time before ushering me out the door. As I left our first meeting, I was stunned to realize that we had talked for two hours. This began a two-decade-long mentoring relationship. Had Dr. Cromartie not taken the time to provide me with words of encouragement and instruction on that fateful evening, the trajectory of my professional life may have detoured in a drastically different direction.

Dr. Cromartie later supported my decision to pursue family medicine. Survey results recently published in Family Medicine(journals.stfm.org) indicate that having mentors outside family medicine who were supportive of students' interest in the specialty was a positive predictor of choice.

Finding the appropriate mentor is not always a straightforward journey. The mentoring process involves respecting time commitments and meeting each other halfway.

I was quoted in the Pro Health article as saying, "If it's a good fit, it's less labor and more of a labor of love. I get personal satisfaction from passing on the knowledge and skills that were given to me unselfishly. That's part of the Hippocratic Oath, to share the information and knowledge I gain with others."

Those who mentor receive an unparalleled, life-fulfilling benefit that keeps repaying itself forward to future generations. Mentorship is the secret ingredient to securing the next generation of family physicians. Our students need positive family physician role models in their communities who will enthusiastically welcome them into their offices. Medical school departments of family medicine and community preceptors need to meet each other halfway to create coordinated teams dedicated to engaging students early in their career paths.

During these formative years of training, students are formulating their initial thoughts about medical specialties. This is precisely what the chair of the Department of Family Practice (it was not called family medicine in 1984), John Gillen, M.D., helped me do when I was a freshman medical student at Wright State University. Dr. Cromartie led me to the front door of the House of Medicine, but it was Dr. Gillen and his faculty who gave me the security code to the penthouse suite where the artful secrets of family medicine reside.

Where did you find your mentors? In an October 2017 post to this blog, our (then) new physician Board member Benjamin "Frankie" Simmons III, M.D., shared how his AAFP leadership journey began at the National Conference of Constituency Leaders (NCCL). There he discovered a vast array of new mentors. He encouraged others to attend NCCL to dialogue, make connections and share ideas.

If that story sounds familiar, it's because NCCL is where many family physicians -- including this year's convener, Kisha Davis, M.D., M.P.H., -- find their footing on the leadership path.

The 2019 AAFP Leadership Conference will be held in April 25-27 in Kansas City, Mo. It is divided into two dynamic leadership tracks -- NCCL and the Annual Chapter Leader Forum (ACLF). Both events give attendees the intellectual tools to redefine, reimagine and rethink their leadership potential.

The ACLF portion of the conference is a great orientation for emerging chapter leaders, professional staff and current chapter officers. The AAFP also continues its commitment to expanding diversity and inclusion within the leadership ranks of our membership by hosting NCCL, which is a leadership and policy development event for underrepresented constituencies (women; minorities; new physicians; international medical graduates; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] physicians or physician allies). It also provides an opportunity for AAFP leadership to hear diverse perspectives and member concerns.

(If you plan to join us in Kansas City, note that registering by March 25 will save you $50.)

Finally, allow me to tell you about a lesson I learned during a journey to the United Kingdom several years ago. On my arrival, I decided to take a walk and see some local sights. Just outside the hotel I came to a crosswalk. Before stepping into the street, I happened to look down at the curb where I saw the words "Look Right" painted on the pavement. Puzzled, I looked up just as a bus came from my right side and sped past within a few feet of my face. I was shocked, but I instantly realized the message was for foreign guests like me who are accustomed to looking to their left for vehicles before they step into the street.

Sometimes the search for mentors is like walking in a foreign land: It might be risky if you don't know what you are looking for. Finding a trusted mentor can seem like a serendipitous odyssey of fate, but it is always a journey worth taking. The most treasured mentors do not always come from the direction in which you are looking. And mentors aren't always as obvious as we would wish them to be. Who would have thought a surgeon would have helped launch my career as a family physician?

Place yourself in the vicinity of those you wish to influence or emulate. If you are a practicing family physician, take the time to mentor students at your clinical practice just as others did for you. If you are a new physician (out of residency seven years or less), you are not far removed from the generation of learners behind you. That makes you an ideal role model students and residents can relate to. Reach one by teaching one. Dedicate yourself to actively participating in medical education.

If you are a student considering your medical specialty options, acquaint yourself with as many potential mentors as possible. Your approaching future may be larger and closer than what you see in your life's mirror. Take the necessary time to look in all directions for the right mentor(s) for you.

Gary LeRoy, M.D., is president-elect of the AAFP.

Posted at 02:28PM Feb 25, 2019 by Gary LeRoy, M.D.

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