Not long ago, I wrote a column reminiscing about one of my more memorable preceptors from med school. I had occasion to think of another this past week. As with the first, I’ve nothing but positive recollections of this guy, and I can’t imagine that any tales I have to tell about him would fail to convey the sentiment — but just to be super-safe, I won’t be dropping his name.
He was the quintessential elder-statesman physician. A department-chairman emeritus, he could surely have retired in comfort but was continuing in academic medicine for love of the game. He really stood out, since the hospital around him (and most of its staff) had its best days receding in the rear-view mirror. He knew his stuff and wanted to convey it to a new generation. Perhaps with a quiet urgency, if he had sensed that things were deteriorating and thought he might hold back an encroaching tide of mediocrity.
No facet of medicine was too small for his attention. Yes, there was history-taking, physical examination, and other diagnostic/therapeutic wisdom to be shared — but even just sitting and talking with his team, he’d gently correct errors of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Someone of lesser gravitas might have come across as nitpicky, a “grammar nazi.” But, his aim was nobler than that, of deeper meaning and import.
When he interrupted to advise that you express yourself differently, the message was clear: You’re a physician. When you say things properly, it sounds more like you know what you’re doing. Others will implicitly regard you with greater respect, and you will be more effective in your role as a leader of the healthcare team.
So, for instance, when one of the interns (who was capable, far from a dummy) demonstrated a tendency to overuse the word “basically” whenever presenting a case, it got pointed out as excess verbiage, a nervous habit to be worked on if he wished to appear more polished. Folks pronouncing diabetes “mel-EYE-tis” would prompt a little explanation that “-itis” at the end of a word referred to inflammation, and “MEL-ih-tus” came from Latin, meaning sweet.
I can’t say I adopted every little one of his offerings. It doesn’t matter how much he explained that the original/proper pronunciation of abdomen put the accent on the second syllable (“abDOHmen” instead of “ABduhmen”); saying it that way outside of his purview would just get me looked at strangely. I wasn’t about to join his (some might say quixotic) crusade of protecting the language from entropy.
At least, not then. Time’s moved along, and I think at some point I eventually did. Maybe it’s got something to do with aging; you get more experienced and confident in your knowledge, willing to stick your neck out to correct others — so they’ll look better for their own sake or representing you as a member of your team. Or, maybe you just get less fretful of coming across as old and stodgy.