One glorious afternoon last October, I was walking downstairs in the hospital to go out for a short walk to break up my day. As I walked toward the door, I saw a familiar looking couple walking arm in arm along a quiet corridor. I stopped, puzzled, trying to remember them and to say “hello”.

The woman smiled broadly, and my memory kicked in. The elderly lady in front of me, walking with her tall, distinguished husband, was my high school biology and chemistry teacher. It was almost fifty years since I had met her in a high school biology laboratory in a Montreal classroom. She was walking more slowly, her face was wrinkled, but her smile had not changed.

I learned that she was attending a program in my hospital and I asked if I could call on her for a visit. She accepted and we made arrangements to meet. What she said to me about where we should meet stopped me in my tracks.

“I must have you meet me at the program. I have dementia and I may not remember our arrangements and I cannot walk around unaccompanied.”

I am a child psychiatrist. My patients do not have dementia and even though I know what this condition is “medically”, I really do not know what it is. I wrote all the details about our meeting on some paper in my pocket and gave her and her husband my phone number and email. My teacher held this awkwardly in her hand for a moment and then passed it to her husband.

When the day of our meeting came, I went downstairs to speak with my teacher’s care providers, out of her sight. I wanted to be sure that our visit would not trouble her. I had read up on dementia – to be sure that I would not cause her upset or hurt by what I might say. But what I forgot was that while she was who she has always been, I was not.

At the arranged time, a staff person brought me to my teacher in the lunchroom. The staff said to her, “Dr. Beck is here to see you.” Bewildered, my teacher looked at me and said, “Why are you here, Doctor?” I was horrified and so worried. I said quickly, “Oh, I’m so sorry – you would know me as Gail Yenta, your student. Please call me Gail – that will be easier.”

“Of course, I know you, Gail,” she said, her confusion ended and her smile returned, “but I’m going to call you Dr. Beck when I remember and I hope you’ll let me feel a little proud that I have played some part in all you’ve become.”

Teachers like this woman inspired me to want to be a teacher when I was in high school, but this woman and her colleague, my English teacher, convinced me to apply to medical school. They coached me with the application process and read my letter. My teacher’s husband, who was a surgery resident, read my letter also and gave me advice about interviews. I believe this teacher played a very big role in my becoming a doctor.

I told her so that day and I said, as my eyes teared, “I am so thrilled that you would be proud of me. That means so much to me.”

Her response was immediate: “I am feeling old and discouraged. I have many days like this this but today, you are the proof to me that I have made a difference.”

The woman who had taught me enough about Chemistry and Biology to become a doctor still has a great deal of educating left in her, and I still have a great deal to learn. I hope all my teachers are as kind, and as patient.

3 thoughts on “What a Teacher Does

  1. Siobhan M Muldowney says:

    This is a beautiful story Gail, Thank you for sharing it. I have remained in contact with my high school French teacher. He inspired me to keep broadening my horizons even as I focussed them on medicine. We remain in contact on Facebook and I continue to learn from him.

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