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A Tribute to a Mentor

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

It was a clear, cool fall morning of my first year in medical school. I had remembered that we were scheduled to have a special guest for our 8 AM lecture that morning, but little did I know how much that lecture would change my life. Bleary-eyed and struggling to wake-up, I entered the lecture hall along with the usual early-morning lecture faithfuls who were filing in and taking their regular seats. However, as soon as the lecturer started speaking, I was fixated. Our special guest that fall morning was Dr. Charles D. Fraser. He was speaking on congenital heart surgery.

I entered medical school thinking I might want to pursue pediatric cardiology. As an undergraduate I had shadowed and interviewed many clinicians in various fields. Those experiences, combined with my background in molecular cardiology research, had led me to think I would pursue pediatric cardiology. I had never considered surgery. I had never had the opportunity to be in the operating room. Honestly, I didn’t know much about what surgeons did, other than what I had seen on television. During that fall of my first year in medical school I started hearing about surgery first-hand from my embryology professor who was a pediatric surgeon. Then after hearing Dr. Fraser speak, I thought seriously about congenital heart surgery.

As I approached Dr. Fraser at the conclusion of his lecture, I did not even know what to ask. All I knew was that I had been fascinated by what I saw and wanted to know more. Dr. Fraser, in his gentle, encouraging way, offered to meet with me to answer my questions. In the meantime, I investigated as much as I could about congenital heart surgery, i.e., training, techniques, career paths, various opinions on the state of the field and where it was headed, etc. After formulating a list of questions I met with Dr. Fraser. What struck me most about meeting with him was how generous he was with his time and his genuine interest in me and my career aspirations. We must have met for over 30 minutes as Dr. Fraser patiently answered the short as well as the lengthy questions, expounding upon the field, its technical challenges, recent surgical advances, and future directions. He was also genuinely interested in me and my goals and was interested in supporting me regardless of my ultimate decision. Little did I know how important Dr. Fraser was to the field of cardiothoracic surgery. As the chief of the Texas Children’s Hospital Cardiac Surgery Department, for Dr. Fraser to take that kind of time with an uncertain first year medical school student made all the difference in my life.

Subsequently I spent our medical school’s spring break that year shadowing Dr. Fraser and his team. During that time I discovered a field in which I want to spend the rest of my life. My general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery rotations in medical school confirmed this. Since then Dr Fraser has been an invaluable supporter and collaborator, encouraging me to present at surgical conferences as well as basic science conferences while I pursue my PhD in bioengineering of heart valves at Rice University. With Dr. Fraser’s encouragement, I have grown from an uncertain medical student, and now with my own NIH grant, to an active contributor to our understanding of congenital valve disease.

This story of my personal journey to cardiothoracic surgery serves two fold, as a tribute to an invaluable mentor to me, Dr. Fraser, and a testimony to the power of mentorship in the recruitment of future cardiothoracic surgeons. In Dr. Crawford’s discussion of the challenges the field of CT surgery faces in his 2003 AATS presidential address, Dr. Crawford highlighted the importance of encouraging medical students to pursue a career in cardiothoracic surgery [1]. This becomes particularly critical in the light of the emerging integrated cardiothoracic training programs that require residents to match directly out of medical school. With surgeons like Dr. Fraser willing to take the time to mentor medical students, more students will discover the fascinating field of cardiothoracic surgery, and the future of cardiothoracic surgery will be bright.


  1. Crawford FA, Jr. Presidential address: Thoracic surgery education—Responding to a changing environment. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg 2003;126:1235-42.


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