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As final year medical students, we had an obligatory two weeks’ rotation in the hospital’s dermatology department. Although we could appreciate how common, important, and revealing skin problems were, dermatology was way off the mainstream for us.
Our young American dermatology instructor beckoned me at the end of one morning session. “What does a handsome young man like you need those for?” were his exact words, indicating two moles that I had on my face. He undertook to remove them for me, explaining that this could be easily done and would not take more than a few minutes.
I was taken by surprise. I never gave it a thought before. The moles were just there, just as my nose was, although they were quite disturbing—one above my left eye, and the other in the middle of my right cheek. The dermatology instructor’s empathy and enthusiasm were catching, however. When I stalled a bit, he was encouraging but neither pressing nor offended, leaving me the option to decide. Soon, I agreed wholeheartedly, and both moles were removed in a matter of minutes by a shave biopsy under local anaesthetic.
Soon, there was no sign the moles had ever existed, and I remain deeply grateful to my instructor, whom I never saw again. I felt so much better afterwards, that I seriously believe that my self image improved and even my dating and falling in love with my future wife was a direct consequence of my short sojourn in dermatology that year.
Now, as a member of the faculty in the same medical school where I used to be a student, I often think of the essential subtle ingredients of the much discussed doctor-patient relationship. I realise that my dermatology instructor was the perfect embodiment of the best physician—observant (or he would not have noticed two small moles in a class of 10 students), keen to recognise and easy to appreciate the best in his patient (I was a much loved only son, but this was the first time that anyone had said I was handsome), sensitive and with insight (being able to see things from the other’s point of view and sense how potentially noxious those moles really were), taking the lead and showing authority (not hesitating to take the initiative and point out the best solution), committed (not minding the extra work and responsibility involved, nor the total lack of any reward), and highly professional (impeccably performing the operation and follow-up).
I hope he may read this, as the smallest of tokens that he deserves. He remains my first and best role model and a symbol of how exemplary physicians affect the lives of their patients.