What is it that motivates practicing doctors, nurses or any professional health care provider to take time away from their usual duties and obligations in order to teach young people whose goal is to one day replace them? 

In approaching that question, a few things are clear:

It’s not because they have to. There is no obligation or requirement for active doctors or nurses to contribute to the education of student learners.

It’s not because they need ways to fill their time.  There is no shortage of patients in need to fill their days with valuable work.

It’s not for the money. Educational activities are not a route to financial prosperity. In fact, time devoted to teaching is usually at the expense of time that could be spent in much more lucrative clinical work.

It’s not for the glory. Teaching requires most clinicians to move out of their “comfort zone”, engage activities for which they have little specific training or expertise, and subject themselves to criticism from learners who, it must be said, have high standards and expectations.

In fact, many days, it can be hard to find reasons. The day-to-day challenges can dominate attention and sap energy. They can lead to serious questioning and “why bother” attitudes.

And what motivates the students of medicine or nursing? Whether young or old, just entering medical school or in established practice, learning is a continuing, life-long pursuit. Although initially motivated by the need to pass examinations or receive various certifications, most of the learning that occurs through the career of a doctor or nurse is self-motivated and apparent only to themselves.

But then, once in a while, something happens to re-affirm the fundamental value of the medical education process.

Such a moment occurred last weekend in, of all places, a local supermarket. Two of our students, Alexandra Morra (Meds 2021) and Nabil Hawwa (Meds 2022) had just completed a busy day and were going about their grocery shopping when they heard a commotion in another part of the store. Approaching the scene, they came upon a number of people surrounding a man lying on the floor, unresponsive. Mr. Jim Morgan (who has provided us permission to share this story) was also shopping at that store that day. Mr. Morgan had suddenly lost consciousness and fell heavily to the floor. Alex and Nabil had never previously encountered a real-life cardiac arrest but responded instinctively. Relating the incident to me a couple of days later, they recall “zoning in” on the patient and going through their check list. Is he breathing? No. Is there a pulse. No. Start chest compressions. Call for an AED. Get somebody to call 911. Get the AED unpacked and hooked up. In doing all this, they found themselves working with a recent nursing school graduate who was visiting Kingston and was also shopping at that time. The three worked as a team, sharing a mutual understanding of the situation and common training in CPR techniques. There was no panic, no jostling for authority, no arguing. There was simply a common interest and focus on the welfare of this patient. An AED was quickly provided, deployed and a shock delivered with restoration of a rhythm just before paramedics arrived and continued the resuscitation which, we’re all delighted to report, was successful. Mr. Morgan was taken to hospital, stabilized and underwent cardiopulmonary bypass surgery two days later by Dr. Petsikas. Recovering in the CCU a couple of days later, he had opportunity to meet and thank Alex and Nabil, whose efforts and those of the (unfortunately as yet unidentified) nurse who they worked with were no doubt instrumental in his recovery. 

Medical students Alex Morra (L) and Nabil Hawwa (R) with Mr. Jim Morgan. Photo by Saif Elmaghraby

On reflecting on all this with me a few days later, Alex and Nabil remarked on how this incident profoundly altered their perception of the learning process. Suddenly, the long hours of work and effort were no longer merely for personal or academic achievement. Learning now had a purpose. A very real, tangible purpose. It also had a face. They now want more and are re-thinking previous assumptions about career direction.

In fact, I’ve found that students will, at some point in the course of their education and training come to what I’ve come to call the “magic moment” when something happens to make them realize that they’re now able to actually, personally influence someone’s life for the better. For most, it’s something relatively modest that perhaps only they are aware of – an accurate and previously unknown diagnosis, a test ordered that led to key information, a minor procedure well executed, comfort provided to someone in distress. For Alex and Nabil, that moment was quite public and dramatic, but all are significant, provide validation and motivate further learning as can no test result or external accolade. 

I learned of all this initially from Cheryl Pulling, who is a faculty member in the School of Nursing. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Cheryl over the years because of her leadership roles in education. Cheryl is Associate Director of Undergraduate Nursing Programs and so my counterpart in the School of Nursing. In addition to meeting in the context of various committees and interprofessional initiatives, Cheryl and I have an annual “date” at convocation where we have the great privilege of hooding our respective graduates. Cheryl also happens to be Mr. Morgan’s sister. 

Cheryl emailed me last weekend to let me know what had happened. She was communicating because, as a fellow educator, she knew I’d be thrilled to hear of this and proud of our students. Of course, she was absolutely right about that, but she was also expressing the satisfaction we all share in knowing that our efforts are yielding results. In Cheryl’s own words:

“While they are medical students, as a faculty member I am also very proud of them.  I know you would be proud if they were nursing or rehab students. We are a team in the FHS with the same goal of educating HCP for the future.”

How right she is.

And that, my friends, is why we teach.