Despite the many tangible accolades I was able to garner while competing on the varsity track & field team at Emory University, the most important award I ever obtained came in a different form. Junior year, after a poor performance in an 800 m race at Clemson University—upset and angry—I made an irrational decision to remove myself from the 4×400 m relay team. I distinctly remember a freshman, who had up until that point idolized me on and off the track, approaching me when it was time to start warming up and I drove him away with my words. At the time Coach Curtin never mentioned anything—acting like my decision was seemingly acceptable—until the next day when I found out the harsh reality. Disappointed and upset, Coach Curtin, questioning my integrity and respect for others, disclosed to me I had let him down, the team and myself. For a man who many times seemed like the second father I never had his words wounded me the most. Adding insult to injury, as the saying goes, he suspended me from inter-collegiate competition for the remainder of the indoor season, stripping away my hopes at competing in two very prestigious national track meets in New York and Boston that season. This suspension in combination with his rhetoric was the eye-opening experience I needed, because at times we all stray off path and become blinded.
In my journey to medicine and maturation this was a pivotal point, in which I had committed actions unrepresentative of my character and commitment to the team. Coach Curtin instilled a valuable lesson in me that day centered on the notion that no one is greater than the team. Similarly, a well-liked and experienced physician, is seen as the leader but he or she creates an environment in which every member of the team is valued. I was the only current All-American on the team at the point, having garnered numerous conference titles and records, but still that meant nothing to him on this day after the decision I had made. He communicated to me that real excellence and leadership places equal weight between your ability to improve someone else as much as yourself.
The very next day I began a cycle of showing up early to every practice, re-evaluating my strengths and weaknesses to restore my reputation as a teammate and a student-athlete. This journey culminated in me being announced co-captain of the Emory University track and field team, after helping mold a novice group, comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomore, middle-distance runners into exemplary university athletes. In the way a relay team is only as strong as the combination of its four members, a surgical team is successful only when everyone works in tandem from the surgeon to the nurse to the scrub technician to the pathologist analyzing the frozen specimen to determine how the surgeon should proceed.
Through this experience, I gained tremendous insight about commitment, consequence, strength, reflection, and growth. My coach could have become irate and displayed his anger and frustration in front of everyone that day, but he chose to wait. He exhibited patience and spoke to me the next day privately. His anger and frustration had not decreased but he certainly demonstrated emotional intelligence as he made it a ‘private’ matter that he handled appropriately. As a physician emotional intelligence is crucial; from the moment one becomes a physician, even a medical student, every action that one takes matters.