Sunday, November 7, 2010

Subconscious Imitation

I recently read this fascinating story about mentorship and imitation. It is by Dr. Paul Brand, a man who gave up a prestigious medical career to serve lepers in India.

"Curtains screened my group of ten interns and medical students from the rest of the forty-bed ward. Those of us inside the curtains were giving full attention to our young colleague as he made his diagnosis. He was half-kneeling, in the posture I had taught him, with his warm hand slipped under the sheet and resting on the patient's bare abdomen. While his fingers probed gently for telltale signs of distress, he continued a line of questioning that shoed he was weighing the possibility of appendicitis against an ovarian infection. 
Suddenly, something caught my eye - a slight twitch of movement on the intern's face. Was it the eyebrow arching upward? A vague memory stirred in my mind, but one I could not fully recall. His questions were leading into a delicate area, especially for demure Hindu society. Had the woman ever been exposed to a venereal infection? The intern's facial muscles contracted into an expression combining sympathy, inquisitiveness, and disarming warmth as he looked straight in the patient's face and asked the questions. His very countenance coaxed the woman to relax, put aside the awkwardness, and tell us the truth. 
At that moment my memory snapped into place. Of course! The left eyebrow cocked up with the right one trailing down, the wry, enticing smile, the head tilted to one side, the twinkling eyes - these were unmistakably the features of my old chief surgen in London, Professor Robin Pilcher. I sucked in my breath sharply and exclaimed. The students looked up, startled by my reaction. I could not help it; it seemed as if the intern had studied Professor Pilcher's face for an acting audition and was now drawing from  his repertoire to impress me. 
Answering their questioning looks, I explained myself, "That is the face of my old chief! What a coincidence - you have exactly the same expression, yet you've never been to England and Pilcher certainly has never visited India." 
At frist the students stared at me in confused silence. Finally, two or three of them grinned. "We don't know any Professor Pilcher," one said. "But Dr. Brand, that was your expression he was wearing." 
Later that evening, alone in my office, I thought back to my days under Pilcher. I had thought I was learning from him techniques of surgery and diagnostic procedures. But he had also imprinted his instincts, his expression, his very smile so that they,too, would be passed down from generation to generation in an unbroken human chain. It was a kindly smile, perfect for cutting through the fog of embarrassment to encourage a patient's honesty. What textbook or computer program could have charted out the facial expression needed at that exact moment within the curtain? 
Now I, Plicher's student, had become a link in the chain, a carrier of his wisdom to students some nine thousand miles away. The Indian doctor, young and brown-skinned, speaking in Tamil, somehow he had conveyed the likeness of my old chief so accurately."*

This story amazes me at how subconsciously powerful mentoring can be. In this case, in the field of bedside manners for the interest of the patient. But the same is true in how we teach, how we conduct meetings, how we sell products, and most importantly, how we strive to be like Christ. As Paul once wisely said,

"Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:1)

*This story is the opening illustration of In His Image, by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey.