My mentor, my friend



My story doesn’t involve a parent or a child. Rather, mine involves a mentor.

In September 1978, I was a perplexed senior medical student at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), Little Rock, unable to decide between a career in family practice or pediatrics. Tom Ed Townsend, a general pediatrician in private practice in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, had the reputation of being the best pediatrician in the state, and was well respected by the entire faculty at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) in Little Rock. My advisor and the chair of pediatrics at UAMS, Dr. Robert Fiser, told me, “If you want to see how pediatrics should be practiced, you need to schedule an elective with Tom Ed.” I have rarely been given better advice.

Although I was a bit intimidated to work with someone so revered, I went to Pine Bluff determined to be the finest senior medical student Dr. Townsend had ever seen. An event that occurred during my first week with him has had a significant impact on the way I approach my teaching duties with students and residents.

I had seen a febrile 2-month-old boy, spending about 30 minutes in the room taking a careful history and physical and trying to do my best. I then presented the child and his problem to Dr. Townsend. Because I could find no focus of infection, I felt it would be best to admit the young lad to the hospital and perform an entire workup to detect sepsis. I then proposed that we treat the child with intravenous ampicillin and chloramphenicol-those were the right choices in 1978-while we were awaiting the results of the cultures.

Dr. Townsend listened carefully to my thoughts and plans and then went into the room to examine the young boy. He took a few moments to look at the child in his mother’s lap and then asked the one important question I had forgotten: “Anyone else sick at home?” The mother then proceeded to list a host of family members who had the same symptoms as her child.

As the realization dawned on me that this infant had the same virus that everyone else at home had, and that in less than 30 seconds and with only one question this sage pediatrician had gleaned more important information than I had been able to obtain in 30 minutes, I became quite chagrined. Dr. Townsend, observing my facial flush, said, “Young Dr. Burke, would you mind stepping out into the hallway with me for a minute?” Once outside, Dr. Townsend put his arm around my shoulder, grinned, and said, “You know, Bryan, I don’t think we can keep this young ‘un from getting well!”

Dr. Townsend taught me with grace and humor: grace because he did not embarrass me in front of the patient’s mother, and humor because he knew he had no need to teach me my mistake. With his touch and grin, he assured me that I was accepted and respected, even though I had made such an obvious beginner’s mistake.

The story, for me, gets even better. Dr. Townsend’s practice pattern confirmed my love of pediatrics, so I applied for and was blessed to do a pediatric residency at UAMS and ACH. During the last year of my residency, Dr. Townsend asked me to become his partner. The 5 years I was able to spend with him were among the best of my life.

Although I am now a professor of general pediatrics at UAMS and ACH, and 26 years removed from the last time I was Dr. Townsend’s partner, I have trouble practicing a single day without using something he taught me, including how to teach with grace and humor. He remains the finest physician I have ever known.


Little Rock, Arkansas

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Ed Townsend, MD, passed peacefully on June 7, 2013. He practiced pediatrics for 60 years, until a few weeks before his death.

DR BURKE is professor, Section of Neonatology, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock.




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