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My Greatest Professor by Jim Denstedt, Medicine Class of 2020

My Greatest Professor

As I begin my new journey entering medical school as part of the Medicine Class of 2020, I have spent some time reflecting on those who have taught me the most. Indeed, throughout my entire education I have met some amazing educators.

I can recall back to grade three, when my teacher, Mr. Matheson, brought his guitar into class, inevitably leading to my 14 years and counting as a musician. Skipping ahead, I can pause to think of the uniquely passionate science department at my small-town high school who pushed me to think bigger and pursue my dreams.

During my undergraduate degree at Western, nearly all of my professors went beyond the call of duty to shape me as a person during this critical time in my career. I have been taught by many great people, but I believe I can narrow things down to one person whom I call my 'Greatest Professor'.

This person has been in my life for years and has exhausted themselves in their effort to make myself and others happy. This person has tried to teach me everything they know and has been the source of some of my most stimulating and life-changing conversations. This person has imparted such wisdom as “It’s easy to dream, it happens when you’re in bed doing nothing”. Interestingly enough, while I attribute much of my success to this person, they are not a professor of medicine and have no advanced degrees. The Greatest Professor in my life is my mother.

Why do I bring this up? I believe this realization has led to an important understanding in my mind as a future physician.

As humans, we all have our own 'Greatest Professors' in our lives. For some, their Greatest Professor comes from family, for some it is a close friend and for others it is another important figure in their life. I feel that I need to understand this when I am educating patients about their health. As a future physician, I should understand that my patients will represent the cumulative teachings and perspectives of those who have made the biggest impressions on them.

During my second week of medical school, one of our professors, Dr. George Kim, said something that resonated with me and led to the writing of this post. I paraphrase: As physicians, we must remember that the people we care for are loved by someone else.

I think this is one of the most important lessons I have learned as a medical trainee. While so much of our education has been focused on seeing patients as people and not diagnoses (a very important principle), I feel this must be taken a step further. Our patients are the collective perspectives and experiences of many people. In reality, one patient represents a complex web of ideas, cultures, and values. We should see a patient not as a diagnosis, and not as a singular person, but as an ambassador of entire communities.

As medical professionals, we often serve as but one small part of this vast web. I feel it is futile to strive to be every patient’s Greatest Professor. Instead, I should seek to understand a patient as a whole person and find ways to contribute positively, but concisely, to their life. In some cases, I may indeed have a huge impact on a patient’s life, but I feel this is best achieved if I first understand the person I am impacting.

Knowing this, I have begun to think of how I can integrate this understanding into practice. Appealing to a patient on a human level may encourage them to share their experiences and give me insight into their unique and complex life. Being cognizant of the invisible factors affecting a patient’s experience may allow me to get to the root of their problems. Being aware of my own biases and past experiences can help me see the intricacies of a patient with more clarity. As someone just starting my medical education, I feel that I must focus on these skills.

In my career, I may never be a patient’s Greatest Professor. As a physician, I will have my own impact on the lives of my patients, but I can only hope to amplify this impact by being mindful of the other forces which have acted on them. In a practical sense, this will change the way I approach patient-centred care and how I learn as a student. In my personal life, this realization will make me pause to think of everyone who has shaped me into the person I am.

Jim Denstedt, Medicine Class of 2020

Jim Denstedt
Medicine Class of 2020