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Caring, Character & Calling: Humanizing the Profession

May 12, 2023

Did you ever have a teacher who changed your course of your life? Someone whose habits, actions, insights and integrity made you want to follow in their footsteps? Members of Dell Medical School share personal stories of profound influencers in this blog series.

All members of the Dell Med community are welcome to submit stories of teachers or mentors whose character moved them and made a difference in their development.

In a Q&A below, Steven Taylor of Dell Med’s Department of Internal Medicine shares experiences that influenced his path in medicine.


Is there someone who had a powerful influence on you?

When I was a kid, around 11 or 12, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It recurred when I was in high school, and it was very disabling. It was profound. She was in her 30s, and she thought she’d do better. I believed that too and hoped for it, but I saw that she was declining. She was healthy and vibrant until my junior year when she began to decline. I remember being in denial about it. I watched this functional, life-of-the-party human become a shell. I’d sit on her hospital bed with her.

She passed away in my second week of college. I could have let it destroy me, or I could make something good of it and move forward, apply it to my life’s work. My mother’s experience didn’t sit well with me. Her recurrence was misdiagnosed and was written off as a non-concern. There was a delay in her treatment, and by the time it was realized, the cancer was widespread. The doctors didn’t listen. Her oncologist was icy, impersonable and did not communicate her prognosis well. It was a cautionary tale. After she passed, I had a distaste for medicine. I generalized things about the field and was angry, but I later realized that she had a couple of good doctors, too.

I also had a pediatrician who was gentle and a great communicator. I thought then that I could use this whole experience as an opportunity to help others and handle emotions in a healthy and nondestructive way. In the back of my mind, I’d think, “What would my mom want?” And I know she would want to be listened to, to be given facts and to have a working relationship worthy of trust.

How did you turn your anger around and handle your emotions?

Serendipity. I was a competitive long-distance swimmer, and I knew how to handle diversity in the pool. In the pool, it’s you and your abilities. I had to find the strength to push myself and the desire to pick myself up and move on. In school, I gravitated toward sciences and math. I studied physiology of the human body in college. Because of my mom, I had a fascination with the desire to help others or make up for what others might do. I wanted to add to the field and set the tone for others.

What about going the extra mile?

It’s just who I am. I’m always thinking about my mom. I was definitely close to her, and she was always there for us. My message to learners is that when you’re helping, know that there is someone who cares deeply about that patient. This is someone’s mom, son, daughter, aunt. Humanize the situation. If the patient is mean, and you’re tired and you feel irritated: Stop and pause. Think about your job. People have a right to good health, whether you like them or not. Get back to your mission: Do no harm, act in others’ best interest and focus on your purpose, professionalism and identity.

I have moments every day when I stop and pause if I’m challenged. I act in my patient’s best interest and move forward in difficult relationships because that grounds me. I lost a few family members as a child, and that can affect you in good or bad ways. I want to make those people proud and leave a legacy for them. I know about wanting to implode or quit, but it’s important to turn it around and handle it in a good way and with a high level of humanism and decency.

The Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine (KNN) is a national network of seven medical schools dedicated to advance caring and character in medicine with the goal of promoting human flourishing. Guided by the principles of caring and character, the KNN provides a framework for training physicians, strengthening joy in medicine and improving health to promote human flourishing within, across and beyond the medical profession to positively impact individuals and communities in our society.

This initiative was made possible through support from the Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine through an investment from the Kern Family Trust and Kern Family Foundation.