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Why Mentors Matter – A Tribute to Dr. Sam Katz

Professor Robert Saul tells us about the experienced and trusted advisor - Sam Katz - who set the stage for multiple aspects of the professor's career.

I was a newly minted doctor, ready to take on the world of pediatrics, in 1976.  I did not get my first choice for a pediatric residency program (Seattle Children’s Hospital) so I was headed to Duke University Medical Center  Any disappointment I might have had was quickly dashed with the privilege to be under the tutelage of Dr. Sam Katz, Chairperson of the Department of Pediatrics. My life was changed forever in the 3 years to follow, in ways unimaginable.

Medical training after medical school had a foreboding reputation.  One hundred plus hours a week of duty including night call with many sleepless nights were not unusual.  A 36-hour shift was not inconceivable and occurred too frequently. One can easily see how such a schedule could send fear into the arriving first-year resident (formerly known as the intern).

We worked hard to provide the best care possible for vulnerable children.  Yet Dr. Katz’s enthusiasm and humanity made this work less of a burden while we recognized its importance and crucial need.  I felt his compassion for those that we treated.  I felt his empathy for his trainees through the nurturing environment that he established within the department.  I could not have asked for a better mentor.

 

Medical training after medical school had a foreboding reputation. One hundred plus hours a week of duty including night call with many sleepless nights were not unusual. Click To Tweet

 

This reflection is prompted by his recent death (October 31, 2022) at the age 95. 1,2,3   I have asked myself over the years what are the qualities that Sam (pardon the familiarity but we were indeed friends years after my training) had as a mentor that I could incorporate into my career after residency.  He was an experienced and trusted advisor, but he was so much more.  His mentorship set the stage for multiple aspects of my career.  Let me explain –

 

  • Research – His work, with others, in virology led to the development of the measles vaccine. The importance of this work cannot be overemphasized in terms of saving countless lives and disabilities that occurred from measles.  While my research was predominately clinical, the importance of such was always encouraged by Dr.
  • Educator – Sam was always keenly aware of his responsibility (and ability) to be an effective teacher for the upcoming generation of doctors. His prolific writings attest to his determination as an educator.  I’d like to think that my enthusiasm for the same was ignited by Dr. Katz. Two of my pediatric infectious disease books that he co-authored were signed by Sam and have a prized spot in my study.  These inscriptions were the first things I looked for when I heard of his passing.
  • Administrator – Medical leaders are often tasked with a thankless job due to financial, personnel and planning issues. The pressures of juggling these administrative tasks while maintaining clinical activity, educational duties and research pursuits can create a cocoon around them that at times seems impenetrable.  That was never the case for Sam as he was there whenever needed.
  • Innovator – Even late in his career, in what most of us would consider post-retirement, he was looking at ways to bring HIV treatment to those that needed it far beyond the borders of the US. He was actively promoting all vaccines in novel ways, recognizing their importance to the health of children.
  • Advocate – Sam was a lifelong tireless advocate on behalf of children. He was always the outspoken voice for children and children’s health.  In a major medical center where adult medicine and adult surgery reign supreme, he effectively argued for a strong emphasis on the needs of children and the need for continued research to improve in the years ahead.
  • Visionary – His ability to lead the charge for enhanced pediatric services and research at Duke and nationwide (including the American Academy of Pediatrics) was recognized by many colleagues. Sam’s awards were many and so well deserved.
  • Humanitarian – One of Sam’s greatest contributions in my estimation was his ability to reach out to so many in so many ways. He was truly a citizen of the world, sharing in the humanity of all.
  • Colleague – In the years after my residency, I frequently reached out to Sam for advice, personal and professional. He made me feel so much at ease with these calls and visits that we became colleagues, an honored status for me.  To be a colleague with such an amazing man was the privilege of a lifetime.  He was proud of my accomplishments in pediatrics and medical genetics, and I was so grateful.
  • Friend – As our relationship grew over the years, Sam and I became friends though I suspect that Sam would have said that we were friends when we first met. Every new acquaintance with Sam led to a friendship. I enjoyed my calls with him, and he always asked the most insightful questions about me and my family. He was invested in every relationship.

 

As I am closing, I must relate a very personal story.  One day I was asked to come to Dr. Katz’s office.  “Oh no!  What have I done?” were my thoughts as I approached his office.  He asked if anything was wrong.  “People have noticed that you seem less jovial than usual, “ he said.  I replied, “well, my father is in Chicago and seriously ill with cancer.  I cannot afford to go visit.” He arranged for a plane ticket and time off.  He said, “you can pay me back with a donation to the department after you are out in practice.”  That “debt” has been paid back but the memories of his generosity will never fade.

So, what started with trepidation (a 26-year-old intern stepping into an occupation with profound responsibilities and burdens) was followed and led by a steadfast mentor supporting me and providing the ideal example for my career to follow.  Mentors are critical to such a personal and professional metamorphosis, and I cannot express enough gratitude to the man and doctor now known to me as “Sam.” Mentors matter in the lives of so many.

  1. https://pediatrics.duke.edu/news/remembering-samuel-l-katz-md
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2022/11/03/samuel-katz-measles-vaccine-dies/
  3. https://publications.aap.org/aapnews/news/22586?utm_source=MagnetMail

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