Getting Small: Remember Humility

Another rotation of residents and medical students has come and gone and it’s on to the next one. But occasionally I like to reflect on what the trainees have done and publicly thank them for their hard work. I was once where they are.

Nigella ready for her walk
Nigella, the first C-L Psychiatry mascot, ready for her walk, circa 2014

We chase around the hospital like a movable feast. We ran into a former medical student who called out to me as we rushed by, “What happened to the mascots?” I didn’t have a great answer and I don’t recall exactly what it was. But it was probably something about change. And our mascots did change recently. The psychiatry consult service mascot tradition began a couple of years ago when a resident got the idea we needed one and Nigella was chosen.

Nigella was a toy balloon giraffe from our hospital gift shop. She was the first of a few toy balloon mascots, all of whom had the disconcerting habit of running out of helium after a week. This made it necessary for one of the trainees or me to walk the mascot down to the gift shop for shot of gas.

Walking the mascot came to be a way to “get small” which meant remembering to be humble–something doctors tend to forget. And while the word doctor is often said to derive from the Latin docere meaning “to teach,” it’s abundantly clear the older I get that doctors learn throughout their careers.

One way to remember that doctors have a lot to learn was walking the mascot. This meant walking clear across the hospital past many, many patients, visitors, nurses, doctors, administrators and others–carrying a toy balloon which floated somewhat precariously above you.

It is humbling. It’s a way to say, “Let’s not forget who we are.”

Anyway, nowadays with our new mascots, Del and Ron (short for Delirium and Neuron, respectively) who are stuffed and don’t need walking, I take group pictures of me and the trainees while holding them.

Group Pic CL Psych Service Aug 25 2016 framed

The other item I have started to include in the group picture is seggiolina, which is Italian for “little chair,” and it’s in the foreground up on the table. This camp stool was a gift to me from one of my colleagues, Dr. Tim Thomsen, who is a Palliative Care medicine specialist (who has also been a surgeon). He deserves special mention because he and I have worked together for a number of years. I respect Tim a great deal and admire his approach to being a doctor and a teacher (did I just repeat myself?).

Tim has his own seggiolina and another colleague of his also has one. We carry our little chairs from room to room. Patients get a big charge out of it. I tell them I carry my chair around with me because the hospital rooms don’t have chairs for doctors. When I sit in my little chair, I’m at eye level or a little below with my patient. It’s humbling and helps to equalize us. Before seggiolina, the trainees used to hustle out into the hallway hunting down a chair for me.

Dr. Jenny Lind Porter in 2014
Dr. Jenny Lind Porter in 2014

Why call the camp stool “seggiolina?” The reason I call my little chair “seggiolina” is to remind me of another one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Jenny Lind Porter. Dr. Porter was a different kind of doctor, a PhD in English and Literature. She taught at Huston-Tillotson University (but when I was there it was Huston-Tillotson College) a small, private, historically black college in Austin, Texas.

Dr. Porter taught at H-TU from 1968-1996. She was honored in 1964 by being named Texas Poet Laureate by Governor John Connally and named to the Texas Womens Hall of Fame in 1985. She was my teacher for a few semesters before I transferred credit up to Iowa State University, from there on to medical school eventually at The University of Iowa. Her house in the Old Enfield district of Austin is currently the subject of a debate between the Austin Historic Landmarks Commission and the Old Enfield Homeowners Association on whether it will be demolished or preserved.

She called her house Casa Magni (Italian for “great house”), which is probably is in honor of one of her favorite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived briefly in a house in northern Italy of the same name. Naming my little chair seggiolina is in homage to her. May it be that something of her spirit burns in me.

The Lantern of Diogenes

All maturation has a root in quest.

How long thy wick has burned, Diogenes!

I see thy lantern bobbing in unrest

When others sit with babes upon their knees

Unconscious of the twilight or the storm,

Along the streets of Athens, glimmering strange,

Thine eyes upon the one thing keeps thee warm

In all this world of tempest and of change.

Along the pavestones of Florentian town

I see the shadows cower at thy flare,

In Rome and Paris, in an Oxford gown,

Men’s laughter could not shake the anxious care

Which had preserved thy lantern. May it be

That something of thy spirit burns in me!–Jenny Lind Porter