Essential role of mentorship in surgery – by Dr. Nicholas Okumu

A friend’s recent Facebook post resonated deeply. “No matter how long it lives, the Greatest Lion will eventually die miserably. That’s the world! They may die young from injuries they sustained while defending their Pride. They may die old, enfeebled by age. At their Peak, they rule, chase other animals, catch, devour, gulp and leave their crumbs for hyenas. But age comes fast. The old Lion can’t hunt, can’t kill or defend itself. It roams and roars until it runs out of luck. It will be cornered by the hyenas, nibbled at and eaten alive by them. They won’t even let it die before it is dismembered. Life is short. Power is ephemeral. I have seen it in lions. I have seen it in old people. Everyone who lives long enough will become very vulnerable at some point. Therefore, let us be humble. Help the sick, the weak, the vulnerable and most importantly never forget that we will leave the stage one day.”

This poignant wisdom mirrors the reality of surgery, where the torch of knowledge must be passed from one generation to the next. Just as young lions learn from the pride’s elders, surgeons hone their skills under the guidance of experienced mentors.

Inevitably our skills will diminish over time and even if this does not happen we may reach a stage where we need our younger colleagues to operate on us for various ailments. Is the next generation of surgeons ready and up to the task?

In the world of surgery, mentorship is the backbone of success and growth. It’s akin to the elder lions teaching the cubs the nuances of survival. Experienced surgeons, like seasoned pride leaders, impart not only technical skills but also lessons in resilience, decision-making, and ethical practice. Their guidance shapes novices into adept professionals capable of facing the complexities of the medical field.

The lion, when isolated, faces numerous challenges, a reality mirrored in the surgical profession. Surgeons attempting to navigate their path alone often find themselves confronting unforeseen difficulties without the necessary support or guidance. The collective wisdom of a mentoring team acts as a safety net, ensuring that the knowledge and experiences of the past inform the practices of the future.

Effective mentorship transcends mere skill-building. It involves sharing experiences of challenging cases, ethical dilemmas, and personal growth. This holistic approach fosters well-rounded, empathetic surgeons, not unlike the dynamic within a lion pride. The mentor-mentee bond is a two-way street, nurturing growth and evolution in both parties.

Just as the pride of lions thrives on the strength of its members, the surgical community flourishes through the continuous cycle of mentorship. The transfer of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next ensures that the field remains dynamic, innovative and, above all, compassionate. In this ecosystem, every surgeon, regardless of their stage, plays a crucial role.

On mentorship, my journey began under the vast, open skies of Dar-es-Salaam, where the seeds of my surgical ambitions were sown. Prof Mohamed Aziz nurtured my early ambitions, leading me to win the best student award. At the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, I had the privilege of meeting the great Prof Hassan Saidi, a giant in Kenya’s surgical journey.

I had just failed an interview to join the surgical programme at Aga-Khan, and ironically landed a job as a medical officer in the Accident and Emergency Department at the same hospital. His encouragement to reapply and his invitation to assist him were pivotal, not just in honing my skills but in understanding the value of perseverance and resilience.

Witnessing his precision and calm in the operating room re-ignited my passion and led me to reapply for a surgical residency and his guiding me through the complexities of surgical anatomy helped me survive residency and its difficulties.

I began to rise, much like a lion grows to claim its place as the pride’s leader. His mentorship was akin to an experienced lion steering a younger one away from peril. I miss Prof Saidi, may he rest in peace knowing that he made many more great surgeons.

This journey taught me the true essence of surgery – a relentless cycle of learning, leading and, ultimately, passing the baton. As I mentor young surgeons, I see reflections of my past self in their eyes, and I strive to be the guiding light that my mentors were for me.

The parallels between a lion pride and the surgical community unveil a universal truth: unity and mentorship are vital for survival and growth. Going it alone, in surgery as in the wild, is not merely challenging; it’s antithetical to progress and excellence.

Mentorship is not just a professional duty; it’s a sacred commitment to the future of our field, ensuring that the legacy of care and excellence continues through each generation of surgeons.

Adapted from, The Star Newspaper:

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