By Elizabeth Lahti, MD
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
I never thought much about mentorship as a young woman. In high school and college I gravitated towards teachers and professors who stood out to me for two reasons: love of subject and ability to engage. Some were men; some were women. Although I didn’t think of them as mentors, they inspired me to pursue what I loved, which at that time was language and literature. In my early life, my mentor was my mother. Although she was not in medicine, she embodied the qualities of what I now see as a mentor: an experienced and trusted advisor who comes from a place of selflessness and love.
Attending medical school was never on my radar; I gravitated toward humanities, not science. The only science class I took in college was Geology and I barely passed. I taught high school English and Spanish for several years, then had the life changing experience of volunteering with a surgical mission in Arequipa, Peru. I translated for nurses and surgeons. I watched my father operate on men and women who had walked for days to the small hospital in the outskirts of the city. The human stories were palpable, and I was inspired to pursue a new love—medicine.
When I started medical school just before the new millennium, I was eager to become a surgeon—like my father. I requested an advisor from the general surgery department and joined the Society of Prospective Surgeons. I sewed pig’s feet in my free time, practiced tying knots with scavenged sutures, and planned my clerkship schedule around a surgery rotation. My male advisor met me once. He said “Surgery is a rigorous specialty for a woman. Especially if you want to have a family.” I never went back to his office. It wasn’t until my fourth year of medical school that I found a mentor. I had discovered a love for the detective work and patient stories in internal medicine. My mentor was an accomplished female internist. She believed in me. She had the ability to reflect back my own hopes, strengths and vision. I sometimes wonder though, if she had been a surgeon, would I be one now?
Time passes in a perplexing way, and my student days are a distant past. Professionally, I am firmly ensconced in mid-career, the same way I personally find myself in mid-life. Over the years I have learned how to seek out mentorship, especially female mentors. I have discovered how important it is to have many different kinds of mentors. Those who are a generation ahead of me help me see the big picture, the arc of a professional life. They are the wise mothers of my career. The ones just a few years ahead of me are like big sisters, navigating the ins and outs of my current position. These peer and near-peer mentors are the biggest boost to me: they are the sounding boards, the co-conspirators, the cheerleaders, and the friends of my life in medicine.
The biggest surprise in navigating my professional life as a woman in medicine, has been the absolute joy in my transition from being a mentee to being a mentor. The same way that my own three children teach me daily about how to grow and change in my personal world, the mentees in my professional life give me perspective, hope, and a palpable reason to show up each day. I have been inspired by mentees to change my own career path. I am energized by my mentees’ incredible vision of a future filled with humanity and love in the delivery of health care. I am humbled by the stories of how my presence in their early professional lives has mattered. On days that I flounder and search for meaning, I only need to reach out to them. When Edith Wharton writes that there are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it, I am grateful for the mothers and sisters in medicine who let me shine as the candle, but mostly I am grateful that in my current stage of life and career, I have found the joy in being the mirror for so many incredible young women who will change the world.
Elizabeth Pepper Lahti, MD