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Thoughts on Becoming a Physician

Adapted from remarks made by the late Theodore E. Woodward, M.D. (1914 – 2005), then Professor and Chairman of Medicine, to the graduating class of 1979 at its Senior Banquet. The full text appears in the Class of 1979's yearbook, Terra Mariae Medicus. 

The short four years in medical school serve only to provide you a foundation, hopefully strong, upon which each of you will learn to think comprehensively and to fill in the necessary bricks and mortar during the coming years. It is our role to insure that you will be a good physician. Whether you are brilliant or not is of little consequence -- what really matters is your attitude and whether you will devote the time and effort to do the job well. Brilliance often overwhelms the patient but the public is more attracted to the dedicated and interested physician who will take the time to listen.

Maintain a sense of humor.

Facility in communicating with your patients at a level of their understanding will serve you well. You will find it possible to establish a friendly relationship with old or young patients. Each requires a little different approach depending upon your personality make-up as much as theirs. Light-hearted, insincere banter has no place in a consulting room. As your relationship with patients grows so does their confidence in you. Yet, keep your personal association at a respectable distance. Patients are hardly encouraged by carefree optimism, an overly ingratiating manner or morbid pessimism. For any patient, no matter how desperately ill, something can be done, limited as it may be. A ready smile when appropriate or a well chosen anecdote often help win over a recalcitrant patient and makes your association with others much more rewarding.

Maintain high standards mixed with graceful humility.

There will be difficult problems which are normal parts of our profession and our lives. When those uncertainties arise, don't be so cocksure and certain that you have all the answers or correct diagnoses. Each problem resembles a coin which has obverse and reverse sides; be willing to turn the coin over. The Japanese consider the bamboo a much wiser tree than the oak: "During a storm it bends with the wind and when the wind subsides it springs back to its normal position. But the oak tries to show its strength, to stand up to the wind and for its pains usually ends torn up by the roots." This is not an admonition to abandon a view, sacrifice a principle and become yes-men; rather, we are asked to weigh problems objectively and accept the premise that another person's viewpoint may be correct just as an opposite diagnosis may be accurate. Success awaits that professional who is honest with others and with himself and somehow avoids the human failing of attempting to please everybody.

Don't underestimate success; define it for yourself now.

Success is not difficult to achieve if you clearly understand and define it for yourself early in life. The values which you adopt for life will shape your success. Set your sights first to become good husbands, wives and parents. In whatever phase of medicine we choose, all that society can ask of us is that we perform the best we can. Equally rewarding for a physician is the satisfaction that in the process of performing service someone else has been helped along the way.

Cultivate friendship.

Cultivate friendship because friends are among humanity's most priceless treasures. True friendship requires time for nurturing, patience, hard work and ceaseless concern for the person you call a friend. Focus should be placed upon quality and not numbers: "Not to have friends that you can count up but friends that you can count on."

Stay young.

Youth does not necessarily cease at a set age. It is always possible to think and act young rather than retreat into a rut of self-satisfaction which is often a failing of any age. During your career, don't aspire just to become a good doctor but rather a special one who might be known as that physician who knew all about a special clinical sign, one who perfected a needed technique, a new procedure, or that physician who found time to work with the Boy Scouts or raise six good kids or grew the best holly trees in the county, or took active part in various charitable civic activities.