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The Life-Changing Power Of Mentorship

Two months late, but still, Happy New Year, folks! And happy Women's History Month! I have been meaning to write a post for the longest time, but you know how this adulting is... LOL. Living alone for the last few months has given me a lot of time to reflect on my life. One thing that has resurfaced in my thoughts many times during these moments of solitude and reflection is how mentorship changed my life. I would like to take all the credit and tell you that I am where I am today because I work really hard and all of that. And though it may be true, I work really hard, but I have had a whole lot of support. Like Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I have had people guide me, support me and help me shape my dreams.

Mentorship is a word that has been thrown around a lot in different spheres of life. But it can be a life-changing experience. When I say the 'life-changing power of mentorship', it may sound like a phrase that comes with a heavy weighting. But literally, a good mentor can change your life. I have been so fortunate to have some remarkable career mentors, which has also translated into my non-professional life. Today's post is to thank all my mentors over the years and to share some stories and experiences about how having a mentor changed and shaped my life for the better.

I have come this far because I got the opportunity to be mentored at a very critical point in my life. The truth is, I didn't even realise I needed one. Mentorship wasn't a concept I had not been introduced to or deeply understood. I met Dr Marco Necchi during my first intern rotation in Surgery Department. He is the most enthusiastic, kind and skilled teacher I have ever had. On my first day, I shadowed him during the ward rounds of the entire hospital. The ward rounds lasted from about 9am to 5pm. It was a long first day. I was exhausted but amazed at how he meticulously read all the patient notes, flipped back and forth between pages, communicated with the patients, and commanded authority and respect among the staff. He seemed to be on top of everything. After I finished medical school, I wasn't sure what career path I wanted to take or whether I wanted to stay in clinical practice at all. But here I was, on my very first day of internship, being blown away by this gifted surgeon. He represented the kind of professional I would want to become. In the following weeks, I shadowed him in theatre, and then I started assisting him in surgeries. I guess he saw some potential in me and developed an interest in my growth. He became my guiding hand. He told me I could be an exemplary surgeon someday. For the very first time, I saw real potential in myself. He probably didn’t know how much those words meant to me. In a patriarchal society and field of Surgery, having a male consultant support and cheer me on like that meant a lot to me. With every case, I fell deeper in love with Surgery. I knew then that I wouldn’t mind doing this for the rest of my life.

Dr Marco has the ability to help people get excited about learning. He was never too busy to teach or discuss a case. His guidance allowed me to blossom. His mantra was 'teach one, see one, do one.' I used to stutter a lot in public speaking, even if it was a room full of people I see at work every day. Dr Marco noticed this and encouraged me to own my space. If I was low on energy and confidence, he'd remind me that I was a star girl and that I would contribute to change in Sierra Leone one day. They might sound like very trivial things, but little words of encouragement went a long way in helping me stay the course. If I was wrong, he'd be the first to correct me. He pushed me to be better, and because of his confidence in me, I forced myself to be better.

I found myself with his guidance. He is still my mentor many years later but has also become my friend. I learned that a mentor can be more than an academic teacher. I go to him for personal-life advice and talk about my struggles. For example, my anxiety was off the charts when I was about to leave home and start residency a few months ago. I began to doubt and second guess myself. So I sent him a message to tell him about my emotions when I thought about leaving home and starting over in a new country. He replied, "Your wings are big and strong, just open them up in the sky and fly!" And that was all the encouragement I needed that day.

Apart from learning surgical skills from him, Dr Marco has created many opportunities for me. And I’m not even counting the number of times he has had to write me recommendation letters for whatever application I was doing. He opened (and still does) doors for me professionally. He helps me set goals, work towards achieving them, and celebrate them. My decision to pursue Orthopaedics/Trauma Surgery was intentional. But having an exceptional mentor made it easier. Dr Marco helped me journey beyond the imposter syndrome, grounded in the knowledge that I can be whoever I want to be as long as I work hard enough.

Through Dr Marco, I got to know Dr Kebba Marenah, the first Gambian Orthopaedic Surgeon, who now happens to be my dissertation supervisor. Dr Marenah, like Dr Marco, has a very keen interest in grooming and mentoring future surgeons. It’s not every day that someone gets the opportunity to train in world-class facilities and then returns home to a low resource country. Dr Marenah's journey inspires me in so many ways. He embraces the mentor mentality. He is always willing to teach, support and create growth opportunities. Because of some of the connections I made through him, I can now pursue my life’s dream in Ortho/Trauma Surgery.

I met Dr Hassan Haghparast-Bidgoli during my one year spell at UCL. He became my research and global health mentor. While we were choosing dissertation supervisors, I was introduced to Dr Bidgoli. One of our coordinators thought he would be a good fit as he had also done a lot of work on trauma care research. Well, I bless our dissertation coordinator for that introduction. Turned out he found me the best supervisor ever. This dissertation was my first piece of actual research, so you can imagine how many questions I had and how much I troubled him. I hadn’t realised how much more learning I had to do to write that dissertation. I had to read books on economic evaluations and cost analysis. I had zero knowledge of Economics. Still, I had a mentor throughout the entire process. On days when I felt like I couldn’t do it, he encouraged me to just push a bit harder and that I could do it. He was my guiding light through the entire journey, and I did a fantastic piece of work in the end. He still guides and supports my work and career in research. He introduces me to colleagues with similar interests, and gives me the support to grow and bloom into my own person.

Through the AO Foundation Access Programme, I met Dr Sushrut Babhulkar, President of the Trauma Society of India and Founding Member of the Orthopaedic and Trauma Association (OTA). I had participated in a formal mentorship program once before, but it never really kicked off. This time, it is different. Dr Babhulkar has been instrumental in helping me navigate and settle in Nairobi. One of the most important things I have learned from him in the past few months is the power of solitude and ''alone time''. He often says the best ideas are born in isolation. And this is so very true! He has helped me use this period to rediscover myself and develop a different set of non-surgical skills.

Last but not least is my peer mentor, Dr Martha Forde. (We save the best for last😁). I know that often when we talk about mentorship, the idea of a way senior colleague comes to mind. But this isn't always the case. Dr Forde is a friend and a mentor. She was my senior in medical school a few years but decades older than me in wisdom (laughs). We always joked about how we would build a hospital together. Having her as a peer mentor is great for so many reasons: It is refreshing to have other female doctors with similar interests in a country with only one female surgeon. Notice how all my other mentors are male? Maybe in my next post, I'll talk about the importance of having female role models. I always have someone to talk to about the challenges I face in training and life in general who totally gets it. I can always count on her for support and guidance. When I started my internship, we worked at the same hospital. Martha was my biggest fan and cheerleader. She listened, understood, and helped me be more confident in my work and improve my surgical skills. Martha embodies everything they say 'a woman can't do or be' in surgery- a wife, a mum, and an amazing all-around surgeon. Well, if that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will😊

Since I started this surgery and global health journey, I have had other mentor-mentee relationships. Being surrounded by people who love their work and drive others to succeed greatly impacts my life. Each one of them has contributed to my career trajectory in several ways. My relationships with them are the most important and precious ones that I think any young, ambitious person would value. I thank all of them for paving the way for me, teaching me invaluable lessons, believing in me and helping me grow. I hope that someday I can inspire and be as good a mentor as they have been to me.

These are some of my mentoring stories. I am aware that not all stories of mentorship are as life-changing as this, but there is always an opportunity for growth. Mentoring is a journey, the same as our entire lives are a journey. They are relationships that may move us in unexpected directions. Once we realize that, we can start exploring and embracing all the incredible insights, experiences, opportunities and gifts that we gather along the way. Mentor-mentee relationships are about willingness to learn, try, and give back. With the right attitude, it can be all in all an incredible journey! All you need is one good mentor to change your life!

If you are reading this and you have the capacity to mentor someone to reach their full potential, pay it forward! There's no harm in lifting others as we rise. Open doors where you can, invite others in, be a guiding light. The world is big enough for all of us to shine so brightly.

Feel free to share your stories in the comments section. It may be all the inspiration someone needs today.

Until the next blog post, be a mentor, be mentored, change lives!


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