The education of physicians is an endless cycle. Educators of one generation train students who become the educators of the next, in turn training the next generation. This passing of the educational torch usually occurs with little relationship between the people doing the training and the people being trained.
Sometimes a satisfying connection shines through, though. That was the case when Laura Gellis spent her last month at Albert Einstein College of Medicine taking the elective in medical genetics.
Laura sent me an email in late April 2012: “I’m a 4th year student going into Pediatrics. I know it’s extremely last minute, but I was wondering if there is any possibility of doing the Genetics elective for this month.” I immediately responded, agreeing to her request.
Why? Because I owed Laura at least a month of training. After all, during my own internship, her grandfather, Sydney Gellis, had taught me medical genetics. It was only right that I now reciprocate.
Her late grandfather was a giant in pediatrics. When I was an intern at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts University’s New England Medical Center, he was chair of pediatrics.
A consummate physician-educator, Dr. Gellis rounded with us interns once a week. During these sessions, he demonstrated physical findings at the bedside, passed along clinical pearls in the corridors and, with his wicked sense of humor, filled us in on some of his bizarre prejudices. (He believed, for instance, that sugar-free candy was evil and that anyone who ate a large quantity of it deserved “a good case of diarrhea.”) Most of all, he made learning fun. I was hungry for such teaching in the cold, hostile environment of the Floating and I soaked up everything he taught. Now, more than 30 years later, I was ready to squeeze out as much of that knowledge as I could in order to pass it along to the one student who would appreciate it more than any other.
Born after her grandfather’s career had ended, Laura knew her grandfather as a sweet old man who’d played a role in pediatrics in Boston, but had little knowledge of how formidable a teacher he was. During the month she and I spent together, while seeing patients at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, taking histories, performing physical exams, formulating diagnoses and offering counseling, I was able to impart a lot of the wisdom Dr. Gellis had passed along to me, as well as some of his strong opinions. I told Laura about her grandfather’s apparently unreasonable hatred of cats (he believed they were nothing more than disease-carrying pests), his sensitivity toward couples who had given birth to babies with congenital malformations and his quick sense of humor.
We were busy during the time Laura spent with our team, and I think she got a lot out of the rotation. However, as the rotation was coming to an end, I wanted to leave her with something tangible, something lasting that she could carry with her through her career. But what? I thought of possible gifts, but nothing seemed appropriate.
Then one morning while scanning my bookshelf, I saw the answer: my copy of Atlas of Mental Retardation Syndromes. Published in 1968, the book, which I had always cherished, had been signed by its first author, Dr. Sydney Gellis. What better gift to pass on to his granddaughter?
On the last day of her rotation, which was also her last day of medical school, I presented Laura with my copy of the book. Clearly emotional, she told me that she knew of its existence, but had never actually seen it before.
The book wasn’t beautiful. This was a working copy, not a collector’s edition. But by passing on that old book—its cover worn, its pages dog-eared from years of use—to Laura, I had tied together three generations of clinician-educators. I had paid forward the gift Sydney Gellis had passed on to me more than 30 years before. It’s now Laura’s turn to pick up the torch.