The Immense Dividends of ‘Thank You’

Every Friday afternoon, my reaction would fail. A seemingly straightforward Grignard
reaction (to reach back to my chemistry ‘lingo’) never worked. Fall semester of my junior year I spent
my Friday afternoons in professor Daniel O’Leary’s chemistry lab as part of a
research elective. Our reactions
moved along smoothly, until they didn’t. And for several months I would leave the lab dismayed that somehow, I
wasn’t working hard enough. I
wasn’t succeeding. And I was a
pre-med chemistry major—my goal was to succeed!

One afternoon in November, professor O’Leary sensed my
frustration. He pulled me aside and told me that for the first year or so of
his Ph.D. he felt like he hardly accomplished anything. But his mentor told him that this happens; that people hit
roadblocks. He persevered, and, of
course, he earned his Ph.D. 

I took heart from his example. And, by the end of the semester, the reaction worked like a
dream.  

Now,
almost 12 years later, I still remember my feeling of accomplishment and
pride when we succeeded. But perhaps more importantly, I maintain the sense of gratitude for
professor O’Leary for mentoring me during that academic challenge.  

I went on to work for several years before attending medical
school in North Carolina. In 2012, I started my residency in anesthesiology. Like many Pomona College and 5C students and alumni, I was used to taking on
challenges and—for the most part—succeeding. But everyone around me seemed to be getting smarter, and the
patients I was taking care of seemed to be sicker, older and more
complex. I am still hard-working, responsible, conscientious. But things don’t always come as easily as
they used to. 

Some
days feel like I’m running in place. Like most physicians, I have had cases that
keep me awake at night, and one or two that I will absolutely never
forget. These are experiences to
learn from, but when they happen, especially when they occur early in your
career, your confidence can be shaken. I have even felt as if I’m the only person who has
ever had such an experience.

My teachers now are the attending anesthesiologists. I work closely with them, as well as a
few of the residents who are ahead of me in their training. They remind me that
everyone experiences these letdowns, these moments or periods of
self-doubt. Finding those
few people to talk candidly with has been invaluable. And the time, patience and thoughtfulness these mentors
invest into my training play a pivotal role in helping me become the physician
that I am and aspire to be. 

In my first year of medical school, a very prominent retired radiologist gave Friday afternoon lectures
focused on the anatomy we had learned about during the week. He had a classic Garrison
Keillor voice that you’d imagine hearing on the radio in the 1940s. Since it was a Friday afternoon, many
students were drawn to the gym or the library and skipped out on his
lecture. One day he had arrived
early and in the break between lectures a large number of students got up and
left.

I
was frustrated that he had seen this exodus of students. I asked another professor
for his mailing address (he didn’t use email) and sent him a small note
thanking him for his time. He wrote back, saying that it was moments like this that led him to stay
in academic medicine. My note recognized his efforts to make a difference in students’ lives meaningfully, in a way that told him that what he did impacted others positively.

A year ago I sent an email thanking an attending physician for teaching me that day. He responded, saying that never before
had a resident thanked him for his efforts, and how much it meant to him. I don’t claim to be any more grateful
than any other student or trainee. But I think we don’t say “thank you” often enough. And for these two teachers,
saying “thank you” really meant something. 

My advice to all of the 5C students, recent graduates,
future doctors, lawyers and teachers is to say “thank you.” Think about the professor O’Leary’s in
your life, the mentors you may have in the future. It will mean more to them than you
might imagine.

Sarah Sperry
McConville PO ’05 is an anesthesiology resident. She is living in Salt Lake
City, Utah, with her husband Robert.

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