Here be Dragons

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There are times in everyone’s life when it is worth pausing to consider larger issues than the conditions you find yourself facing every day. Big issues like the meaning of life, how we got here, what happens after we leave…, have been the topics of philosophers and kings with far more eloquence than I have. Nevertheless, I am compelled to pay homage to one of the most influential philosopher-teachers in my own life today, because failing to do so would be an injustice to my feelings about him, and this blog is my sole “public forum”.

Donald Seldin was the Chief of Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical School, better known to most people as “Parkland Hospital”, the place they took Kennedy. I went there as an intern in 1972 and was privileged to be under his spell for the two years of my training that represent, for most physicians, the most intense interval in all of their preparation to become “a doctor”. Unless you have lived through your first night on call, wondering whether and how your medical school has prepared you to actually make decisions about another human being who has, by choice or by chance, placed their life in your hands, it is hard to put those feelings into words. “Here be Dragons” is a myth about maps relating to what early cartographers would put on maps when they reached the edge of the known world. I always found that phrase evocative when it comes to facing the unknown. For thousands of physicians who trained under Dr. Seldin, he became the pilot who helped you edge out onto that unknown sea called MEDICINE and gave you the confidence to succeed.

Dr. Seldin died at the age of 97 last week. His life and contributions have been extolled by many of his admirers. The shortest version I can find is this obituary from the New York Times. For a more extensive version, and to meet the man himself, you can watch this video. When I was in mid-career in the 1980’s, we took a sabbatical in Helsinki, Finland. It gave me time to think about the larger issues and to write to some of my mentors, thanking them for taking me on as a student and sharing their wisdom with me. Dr. Seldin was one of the men to whom I corresponded. As I recall, in the letter I referred to the pop song, “To Sir with Love” because at an emotional level, the phrase “How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?”  best captured how I felt about his tutelage. He wrote back to the effect that he “had no idea that he cast such a long shadow”, which was surely not true, but his modesty was just another facet of his remarkable personality.

So, if you are in any sort of a contemplative mood at some point this year, take a bit of time to write to one of your mentors or a family member. Thank them for what they mean to you. When they are gone (or when you are gone), that letter will be worth your time as an emotional bond as you sail on into the unknown. Godspeed Dr. Seldin!

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Here be Dragons

  1. as always thank you for the thoughtful and timely advice

    Jacob Schor, ND. FABNO Associate Editor, The Natural Medicine Journal Denver Naturopathic Clinic 1181 S. Parker Rd. #101 Denver, CO 80231 303 337-4884 FAX 303 337-4997 http://www.DenverNaturopathicOncology.com http://www.DenverNaturopathic.com

    ________________________________

  2. john c miller

    great statement MIKE!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Molly I.

    Thanking people is always a great idea, so thanks for the reminder to take the time.

  4. Bob Lederer

    Mike,
    That was beautiful. My mentor at Wisconsin was Dr. Robert Schilling of Schilling Test fame.
    When my daughter was in her residency in Madison I looked him up and took him to lunch. Though he was frail his mind was sharp and I could thank him personally.
    Powerful advice since each of us has these important figures in our life.
    On the other side I am still in touch with some former Ped patients who are now in their 40’s
    Bob

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