I got an e-mail recently from a Dr. Tim Race, MD, FACS. I didn’t remember knowing a Dr. Race and almost deleted it. I’m all over Social Media these days and have gotten some increased notice because of some columns I’ve written for Physician’s Weekly. I’m happy to respond to friend requests on Facebook, and often respond to comments on my PW posts. But e-mails from people who aren’t on my friend list are uncommon, and I don’t usually open them. As I said, I almost deleted the message until I noticed the subject line. “NMCB-5” it said.
That brought it back to me. I’d known a Petty Officer Race when I was the battalion surgeon for Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Five during my operational tour, the year after my internship. I had been a naïve, young (very young) doctor who went from playing at being a Naval Officer to thinking I might one day actually become one. For the first time in my life, people expected me to lead, to take sole responsibility for potentially life or death decisions, and to be the expert that others turned to with questions about my area of responsibility. It was transformative.
Tim Race had been the Public Health technician for the battalion, a Third Class Petty Officer, just out of C-school and a bit of a troublemaker. He took his duties seriously enough, but was smart and cocky. He had little patience with the regulations and protocols of enlisted life in the Navy. My first act as a division officer when I reported to the battalion was to convince the Master-at-Arms to let Race out of the brig so that he could do the monthly galley reefer inspection on time.
Race used to volunteer for the unpopular ‘midwatch’, the midnight to 4AM watch, at the dispensary, mostly because there was no one else there to tell him what to do. I had a bad case of recurring insomnia during that deployment and used to hang out in my office rather than disturb my hut mates. Race and I often talked. I don’t recall those conversations being particularly deep or overly friendly. To me he was a bright 20-year-old kid with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. I did know that he was working on a degree in biology but not much about any future plans. Neither of us was looking much beyond the end of that deployment. Race left the battalion when we returned to Home Port and I didn’t hear from him for almost 35 years.
“He then surprised me by thanking me for setting him on the path to Medical School.”
He finished his degree and went to Medical School on the GI Bill. He trained at Virginia and did a Colon Fellowship in Pittsburgh.
In his e-mail he told me he’d seen my column on the “Etiquette of Help” in Physician’s Weekly and got my e-mail from my Facebook page. He then surprised me by thanking me for setting him on the path to Medical School. He recalled our late night conversations in the dispensary on Diego Garcia and told me he’d been impressed by my commitment to going back to Bethesda to finish my training. Apparently, at some point in what I though was a casual conversation, I told him that he was smart enough to be in my position one day. No one had ever told him he was a smart person. I’d earned his respect by getting him out of the brig and then letting him do his job without a lot of intrusive oversight. When I told him he could make it to Medical School, he believed me.
It struck me as I read his note that we never know how much influence our everyday actions may have on others. I recall mentors and teachers who had a profound affect on me. That isn’t unusual. But I also know that some of the people who inspired or motivated me may have had no idea that they had done so. I recently reconnected with an old high school friend whose father inspired much of my own ideal of how to be a good husband and father. I think she was surprised to hear he’d had such an affect on me, since he and I weren’t particularly close. I’m not sure he even liked me. But he became for me a sort of ideal to aspire to. I know he had no idea that he’d affected me so, but a large part of who I am as a family man is down to his example.
Dr. Race and I will try to get together sometime in the future, maybe at the ACS Clinical Congress this fall. I’m a bit humbled to have learned that I had a role in shaping his career, and wonder what effect, good or bad, I may have unwittingly had on others.
Get Dr. Davis’s new book, Dancing in the Operating Room, a collection of these and other short essays about life and love in the world of surgery and medicine, now available from Amazon in print or as an e-book. Check it out!