Editor’s Corner: Chance Encounters of the Third Kind

Aaron T. Gerds, MD, MS
Aaron Gerds, MD, is Deputy Director for Clinical Research at the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute and Associate Professor at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Many of us can think back to our days as greenhorn hematologists, walking into the vast poster hall at an American Society of Hematology (ASH) annual meeting after a long day of attending abstract sessions and educational talks. You stand by your poster with trepidation in your heart and a stale pretzel in your hand, relieved that you’re at the end of the row, where reduced foot traffic may shelter you from at least some of the probing questions that could blow gaping holes through your abstract. Then, down the line, you see that venerable figure in the field moving from poster to poster with his or her entourage in tow. The party approaches your poster like some sort of tachycardia-inducing tide slowly rolling in, suddenly in front of you. You recite your well-rehearsed elevator pitch and are met with, “Hm, interesting. How did you account for…” It only takes a minute, maybe five, but this chance encounter can open your eyes to new possibilities, steer your trajectory, or even inspire a career.

These brief encounters may not even register in the mind of the venerable figure, but, for the greenhorn, they can be life changing. I have had many such encounters. When I was a fourth-year medical student, I did an away rotation at a research hospital steeped in trials pushing the edge of current care. I was in awe of the name, the facilities, and the research being done there. By the time I started my first day on rounds, I was starstruck – I would get to round every day for two weeks with one of the most prominent figures in the field! Like a dehydrated sponge, I soaked up everything. Every patient discussion, every decision, every nuance was filed away in my mental file cabinet. This, I thought, this is what I want to do.

Until that point, I thought of research as a means to an end. It was a way to get into a good training program, which I could then parlay into a good job. That changed after witnessing the application of clinical research in real-time, and the passion with which my role models delivered care. While I never received any specific coaching or mentoring during this encounter, the experience of doing rounds left a deep impression.

Two years later, I was lucky enough to have an abstract presentation at the ASH annual meeting. When I made my way into the poster hall, I was excited to see the researcher who had steered my career’s trajectory standing in a row of posters. Pretzel in hand, I started walking toward him. Before I got there, he flashed me a “do I know you?” look. Well, we made eye contact, so it’s too late to turn around now, I thought. I pushed forward and re-introduced myself. After a few bits of awkward exchange, I added, “I was your medical student on service,” and listed the specific inpatient service, month, and year. I even asked about the status of some of the trials that were open at the time. The interaction was polite and there was a faint hint that he remembered me. The conversation eventually grew more comfortable and, after what seemed like hours (but was about 120 seconds in reality), we shook hands and headed for different rows.

This sage teacher had just unintentionally gifted me with a second lesson: the importance of perspective. A formative experience that was etched into my mind was just another day in the salt mines for someone else. I was so worried about being unimpressive during my rotation, but the liberating fact is that, on any day at any moment, you can inspire or be inspired.

Now that I am deep into the middle of my career, I feel a bit like the Roman god Janus in these situations: While I am still hoping to interact with key people in the field, I also am cognizant that I may be influencing others. I think that Tom DeLoughery, MD, put this well in his July issue Pulling Back the Curtain interview: “When I approach mentoring, I try to remember the effect that a senior person’s words and advice had on me early in my career, and what effect my words will have now.” I’ve tried to keep both perspectives in mind, but admittedly fall short from time to time.

Over the years, my path has crossed that of the prominent figure at various meetings, congresses, and teleconferences. As we exchange pleasantries, I always remember those ‘forgettable’ chance encounters.

Aaron Gerds, MD