By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina
At the 2012 UTMB School of Medicine graduation, guest speaker Dr. Jennifer Arnold, medical director of the Pediatric Simulation Center at Texas Children’s Hospital and star of “The Little Couple” on TLC, inspired us all to live with humility and compassion.
Students, their families, and faculty were all moved by her endearing story of having to overcome the challenges of a rare form of dwarfism to become a leading neonatologist at Baylor. Dr. Arnold described the challenges of her short stature and physical deformities and how it forced her to have great determination and courage in the face of adversity.
Like our graduating students this year, she also experienced a major hurricane while she was starting her training. Just as Hurricane Ike struck our current graduating class a couple weeks after they started medical school, she weathered a hurricane in Miami just as she started college.
She has had more than 30 orthopedic surgeries at the caring hands of a committed Hungarian surgeon. He took her aside after her celebratory graduation dinner from medical school for a few words. In moments, he distilled to her the essence of his 30 years of experience on what it means to be a healer. Technical skill and the latest knowledge are required, of course.
But being a true healer requires humility in the face of complex decisions, the unknown and mysteries in the human condition and also compassion in the intense experience of caring for those who suffer. To succeed in the face of such odds and persevere as our students have done requires an incredible effort.
The medical school environment is competitive and it challenges students to master enormous amounts of information and many skills. Medical branch students are truly committed to the compassionate, competent care of patients.
Learning humility also is a professional’s lifetime work. It is hard when you are in charge and patients’ lives might hang on your decisions to admit, even to yourself, that you are in doubt. An attitude of confidence and even bravado is self-protective in such situations. It can, at times, lead to a certain arrogance, born out of insecurity and fear of our all too human fallibilities.
Her advice guides not only health care providers but for those in any walk of life. Admit when you don’t know what to do next. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. We all work in teams, families and mini communities. We learn from each other by building on our mutual strengths and individual gifts.
Serving as an effective healer, parent, student or other role in our society requires us to see our similarities with others, not our differences. We must acknowledge that we are no better or worse than others by basis of our birth, education, income or social status. This requires the kind of humility that brings compassion to our work, relationships and peace to our world.
Helen Keller, blind from birth, offered us the following:
“Your success and happiness lie in you. ... Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the W.D. and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch.