Human InterestPersonal History

THE BEST MONTH OF MEDICAL SCHOOL, SEPTEMBER, 1968.

THE BEST MONTH OF MEDICAL SCHOOL

SEPTEMBER, 1968

Unquestionably, the best month of my medical school education was September, 1968! It was the first month of my senior year. It was just after an off quarter during which I worked in the emergency room of Community Hospital. That month was probably the best exposure to excellent teaching I have ever experienced. 

The final two years of medical school were each divided into four quarters, with one quarter of   vacation each year. The other three quarters were for learning about specialty areas. The 4th, or senior, year was divided into Internal medicine (2 mos) and pediatrics (1 mo), the surgical sub-specialties (ortho-3 weeks, urology-3 weeks, and anesthesia, ENT, ophthalmology-each 2 weeks), and psychiatry, neurology, and outpatient pediatrics (1 month each). For me, the Fall quarter was my rotation on Internal Medicine. As part of that rotation, we were permitted to choose an “elective clerkship” for one or the two months. I chose a month at the Veteran’s Hospital with Dr. Roy Behnke, a renowned member of the I.U. med school faculty.

Dr. Behnke was an extraordinary lecturer and teacher who was the best orator I had ever heard. When an elective with him was available, I jumped at the chance. During my freshman year, on Saturday mornings, Dr. Behnke had conducted a series of lectures on the history of medicine. It was then his dynamic oratorical style caught my attention. He taught us about important people in medicine who first described a certain disease or discovered important drugs or vaccines. He was a captivating speaker, and I couldn’t wait to go with him one-on-one.

The Fall quarter started right after Labor Day. My Internal medicine rotation was at the Indianapolis Veteran’s Hospital. I was the only Senior student on the rotation so I felt honored by that distinction. I was accompanied by 6 junior students, two of whom were top students in their class. Our attending physician was Dr. Behnke. In spite of the fact he was my attending, I saw Dr. Behnke only twice a week! Surprise, surprise! I was a bit disappointed about that. His absence was more than filled, however, by the two senior internal medicine residents assigned to our ward—Dr. August (Gus) Watanabe and Dr. Donald Pell.

Drs. Watanabe and Pell were two of the smartest guys I ever encountered. Every student and every faculty member knew about these two and how capable they were. Both were excellent physicians, knew everything about anything medical, and had an unequalled knack for teaching. My elective turned out not to be with Dr. Behnke, but with Dr. Watanabe and Dr. Pell. It was a fair trade-off. When Dr. Behnke came around, most of his time was spent with Dr. Watanabe, the first week, and Dr. Pell the last three weeks. He rarely spoke to me. That was ok because I was included in his conversations with the two residents, and they made up for lack of access to Dr. Behnke.

Each day began with hospital rounds. It was Dr. Watanabe’s practice during rounds to have an in-depth discussion of each patient’s problems. He would point out the patient’s important findings on physical exam, review the lab results and explain their meaning, and talk about the many reasons this or that test might be abnormal. 

In between seeing patients on rounds and evaluating new hospital admissions, Dr. Watanabe would give mini-lectures. He would ask a question, which we students were invariably unable to answer, then spend the next 15-30 minutes lecturing, off-the-cuff, on the subject. His breadth of knowledge was incredible and exceeded only by his willingness to share it. I was sorry I was with him only one week. After the first week at the VA, Dr. Watanabe moved on to another service in another hospital. Later in his career he became chief internal medicine resident, which was only awarded to the “best resident.” He then joined the I.U. Med School faculty rising to chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine, a prestigious position. Private industry lured him away from academia, and he became a high-level executive at Eli Lilly and Co. until his untimely death.

When Dr. Watanabe moved to his next service, his replacement, Dr. Donald Pell, picked up where he left off. Dr. Pell was equally intelligent and equally excited to share his knowledge. He was a very hyper guy who talked fast, walked fast, thought fast, and never ran out of energy. He thrived on taking care of patients and loved medicine. His excitement about minor physical findings was contagious. I recall once while on rounds he rattled off information from a book he read entitled “Eye Signs of Medical Disease.” He loved to discuss the changes that occur to a patient’s eyes because of their disease. He always looked at patient’s hands because they frequently gave him clues about the patient’s general health or even his diagnosis. He was less prone to give spontaneous lectures, but he was no less willing to talk about anything medical. He later did a fellowship in pulmonary medicine and practiced in St. Petersburg, Florida.

I don’t know how these two got so smart. I’m sure God and genetics had something to do with it, but I was one of the benefactors of their genius. It’s remarkable how one month of med school can be so memorable, but these two doctors, plus Dr. Roy Behnke, made it so. It helped that I really enjoyed the specialty of internal medicine. Although I was not trained as an internist, internal medicine was easily 75-80% of my practice. These three gentlemen taught me a lot of the facts and minutiae of medicine, but more so they instilled a love for patient care that never waned. Even in retirement I think about medical challenges, difficult diagnoses, and the challenge of solving an unknown. Drs. Behnke, Watanabe, and Pell were only one month of the 36 months I spent in med school. But their influence has lasted for 53 years. 

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