The Reluctant Mentor

A couple of weeks ago I was honoured to be invited to Larrakia country. After a day’s travel, Claudia and I found ourselves on a restaurant verandah adjoining an art gallery, watching a scarlet sun slip from an orange sky into a brick-coloured sea. Friendly waitstaff circulated rice rolls stuffed with crisp wadges of coriander and sprouts with egg and meat. We were offered glasses of sparkling wine.

Firey sunset over the sea. No visible crocodiles. Photo by  Cindy del Valle .

Firey sunset over the sea. No visible crocodiles. Photo by Cindy del Valle.

The meeting was of Aboriginal doctors and medical students, with supportive colleagues. Weary people, stewed by work, arrived gradually on the verandah. It was a Tuesday night during the wet season, that time of crazy-making humidity when the skies open in the tropical north. Many had made the effort to come beautifully dressed. Kids came. Their energy in the torpid heat was inspiring.

I’d been asked to talk about mentoring. I had to admit that I didn’t like the idea of mentoring when I was younger. In the 80’s and 90’s the word and the concept seemed co-opted by business people. It seemed to me that if you needed some guidance on a path of greed and corruption, a mentor was the one to help you. You can see my ideas about business were a little narrow.

I see it differently now. ‘Mentor’ is just a word. It describes an aspect of learning that all humans relate to. In the mature cultures of the world, the guidance of someone older and more experienced at the right time is the key to learning many skills. We have always learned from more experienced ones. It was the natural way of learning for any specialised skill – gathering or hunting an unusual or strictly seasonal food, for example. A person needed a mentor to become a toolmaker, a gardener or a healer.

There are formal and informal mentors. I’ve had a few formal mentors and have mentored one or two students and junior doctors in a formal arrangement. My informal mentors are too many to count.

Reflections. Photo by  Aaron Burden .

Reflections. Photo by Aaron Burden.

We learn from our mentors: deep and powerful things and small, seemingly superficial things, which nevertheless become meaningful.

At the first meeting of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) – in the 90's, before we were even an association – I was struck by the appearance of the Aboriginal and Islander doctors in their finery. Many wore bright colours and patterns. There was remarkable jewellery and elaborate tattooing. It showed me a different way for doctors to look than I was used to.

I was a student for over a decade, but began wearing jewellery after I graduated. I’d seen an Indigenous way of presenting yourself to the world – finding your unique style, celebrating appearance and maintaining integrity.

AIDA and our broader family, the Pacific Regional Indigenous Doctors Congress (PRIDoC) inspired me to show myself as I am: a bridge between Indigenous authenticity and a projected professional image. My mum could take some credit for that too.

It seems a superficial thing, but you know our mothers had reason to be concerned about appearances. Skin colour prejudice, dress codes meant to exclude, European shoe fetishes (“You can’t be barefoot here. It’s not safe. It’s dirty.”) – all those rules and customs formed a basis for inclusion or exclusion for our people. It has gone on; still goes on.

A few years later, one of my individual mentors – I met her through the Australian Medical Lesbian Association – said to me that it took her 10 years to be a safe doctor. I was a student, just finishing my degree and I hated that idea. I would be safer, smarter, sooner. I had to be.

But I often remembered what my mentor said during my first ten years of being a doctor. She was an excellent rural GP, dealing with emergencies at the local hospital and holding her ground at the local Aboriginal Medical Service. I thought that if she could admit that to me, then I could be a little humble about the extent of my own learning and experience. It helped me a lot to reflect on what she said. It helped me to be patient with myself.

Your mentor doesn’t have to be a paragon. One of my mentors had a drinking problem. He was an accident waiting to happen. He didn’t come to work drunk, but he was often late and hungover.

My alcoholic mentor was an accident waiting to happen. Photo by  Hans Eiskonen .

My alcoholic mentor was an accident waiting to happen. Photo by Hans Eiskonen.

All the best of him went into being a doctor. He was kind, gentle, compassionate and wise. He taught me about filling in forms like worker’s compensation. “I just write on it whatever I want to say,” he said. “Whatever that person needs, whatever the insurance company needs to know, you just write it on the form. Just add a sheet or two if you can’t fit it on the form.” You just didn't want to go drinking with him after work. It was not fun. But at work he was good.

I saw him diagnose someone’s myocardial infarction, get the drip up, give them aspirin and oxygen and medicine so they wouldn’t vomit and then arrange the transport to hospital. He was a broken man, the classic wounded healer. He showed me that you don’t have to have all of life’s answers, or pretend you do, to help people. Last I heard he was helping young people with addictions, having made a deal with his devils. Alcoholics Anonymous saves a lot of lives.

As I spoke that evening, the bats wheeled from tree to tree and the kids had to come back to the verandah because they could no longer see their football. The humidity, delicious for us desert dwellers, walled us into our bodies, so that we were all moving slowly. Sweat poured down the side of my face.

In summary I encouraged my colleagues to think broadly about their mentoring relationships. “You can trust that the ancestors and spirits of the land will guide you to the right people at the right time, for what you need to learn now. That’s the way it works.

“If your learning is painful – you keep bumping into conflict or dire difficulty – step back a bit, slow down. Listen.”

Being patient helps things to come into being faster.

I rubbed the splendid pearl that hangs from my neck and had the satisfying sensation of a circle being made as the student, finally maturing, learns to teach.


Thumbnail painting of magenta anxiety by Devalei.