Every day all of us have literally scores of chances to change the direction of another person's life for the better. It is astounding how all of us can look back over our lives and recall a time when we were in some trouble or frustration; and some other person quite innocently but with deep curing gave us a boost, a word of encouragement, some voice of confidence in our own ability to overcome, to win, to achieve. And now we can look back to those times - those instances - and we are grateful for those kindnesses. One such incident comes to my mind quite readily...
In my freshman year of medical school, I, too, took the great initial shock of medical training: gross anatomy. I thought that I had met my Waterloo. There were 120 members to that freshman class of 1970-71. In the dissection room itself there were six of us to a table, the table containing what remained of what was once a human being. Our instructor in gross anatomy was Dr. Ted Metcalf. Dr. Metcalf was thin, almost gaunt, in his appearance. But very muscular - not in that Mr. Universe style - but muscular in the sense of sheer fitness. He wore rimless glasses. And he was quite bald, though I think he may have been bald by choice. I would guess that at the time I was his student he was probably in his 50's. It was and probably still is quite difficult to guess his age. He was in excellent health and exercised daily. Never once in four years of training did I ever know him to use an elevator. He always ran - yes, ran - up the stairs. He could lecture for one to two hours without missing a word or seeking a note. Perhaps his greatest delight was to entertain each class with a phenomenal exposition of ambidexterity. He would move suddenly to the blackboard and write two different sentences at the same time - one with each hand!
His tests were never unfair but they were difficult. As an anatomist he was always conscious of and never forgot...the details. It is astounding how much someone can learn from the kind of teacher and also the kind of man that is Dr. Metcalf. For while he taught me anatomy, he taught me a great deal of medicine. And ultimately a great deal about life. He never raised his voice in anger though he readily laughed with us. There was an aura of aloofness about him that commanded respect.
My first exam was a complete disaster. As I recall, my score was 41 or 42 on a 100 point exam. I had crammed my buns off for that exam. Memorized everything! Muscles! Tendons! Insertion points! Bony landmarks! Functions! Lecture notes! I flunked horribly. When I entered medical school, I was twenty-eight years old. One of the oldest in my class. Married. Three children. I'd given up a career to get to med school. And had flunked my first exam. My world was coming to an end. In debt. No job. A family. And flunking out. I was devastated. What had made matters worse was that when Dr. Metcalf handed me my graded exam, he half-murmured that he had hoped that there wold be no more of this! My one big shot at medicine was going down the tubes. Later, after the lecture and before beginning the days dissection, Dr. Metcalf came over to our table.
"Mr. Wieder, may I see you a moment?" he inquired. I followed him out of the lab, down the corridor, and into his office. Scared to death that this was the moment of truth! I would be asked to leave quietly. Please, clean out my locker. I would be wished good luck. A quick handshake and a goal shattered. I was trembling uncontrollably. I had worked so hard! And dreamed so long!
He asked me to sit down. Then didn't say anything for a few seconds. My mind raced back to the beginning. My desire. My curiosity. Fascination in biology. My Uncle Fred, the physician I dreamed to be. The agony in gaining entrance to medical school is unbelievable. The competition. The long hours. Working full time and going back to school. Being a husband. Three kids. The interview. Then, the letter of acceptance. The elation is indescribable. For now I was to enter the profession of my Uncle Fred. I could become a general practitioner in a small town. A solo practitioner. I had been placed on the final road to my life's major goal. And now in Dr. Metcalf's office that dream crumbled. He told me that he was somewhat familiar with my background and circumstance. And was wondering if there was anything he could do to help. There was no hiding my feelings, he could see my crumbled dream as clearly as I felt it. The last test that I could recall flunking so badly was my junior year in high school. A pop quiz on The House of the Seven Gables! I left out a detail - the second "the" in the title! And missed both questions. I got an "F"!
Dr. Metcalf inquired about my faith. Though agnostic at the time, I had been reared a Methodist. And every Sunday - for an hour - my mother read The Hurlbert's Story of the Bible to my brother, my sister and me. Even then my favorite part was creation! All the big beasts! The jungle paradise! And I was an eight year old Tarzan who ruled that jungle! Anyway, Mother made us memorize certain passages. We could be called on to recite at any time.
Dr. Metcalf asked me if I realized how much a faith can mean? It worked for him in his life. And every day of his life began with the Twenty-third Psalm. Would I kneel with him there and recite it together? A sigh of relief came over me. Thank God my mother made me memorize that passage! At least I had been spared the embarrassment - in the face of everything else that day - of note knowing it! As we returned to our chairs, he related to me of times in his life when his faith in God was all he had. It has been more than enough to see him through those times. He bade me not to discount the positive difference a strong faith can be in one's life. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he instructed me to do better on my next exam. In his eyes, I could see that he truly did want me to do better. His care was genuine. I vowed to myself not to fail his trust.
Two weeks later I was ready. This time a 92! 96-100 was an "A" but that 92 sure felt like one! Dr. Metcalf approached me later in the lab. He placed his arm around my shoulders and with a slight hug voiced approval of my score. It is one of those moments in life that is later seen as a turning point. The roadway was again open. The goal was there again.
Since then I have reflected on that incident of my life many times. It was one of those "decisive battles" in one's personal life. It is a memory I would hope that even the decay of atherosclerosis will not erase. For in the simple act of caring for someone he never knew well, merely by extending a kindness to someone in need of one, Dr. Ted Metcalf helped to change my life. Even before I knew my life had been changed! And yet to this day I have failed to go back to him face-to-face, man-to-man to tell him how much his kindness has meant to me over the years as a physician. And all the more so now that I am no longer agnostic.
Dr. Metcalf's approach to teaching has compelled me to see the big picture, yes. But don't forget the details. Big pictures are after all made of fine detail. His kindness has shown me how much a life can change when a kindness is extended when one is needed. His manner is one we should all emulate. For every day we see some one in need. Reach out. Give a nudge of support. Hear another out. Lend a hand. Care. It makes you wonder just how much different the world wold be if we could extend a kindness wherever there is a need. Doesn't it seem simple? Yet so complex. The rules of basic physics are the same rules as basic human relations - simple. And beautiful in their effect.
These chances to help come at us every day. For the world gyrates in misery. So simple, almost too easy, to reach down and help someone. A word of support. Lend an ear. Why is the simplistic always so difficult? So impossible? Perhaps one way to start may be with...
"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want..."
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