The diversity of outstanding work accomplished and innovative discoveries made at UTMB never ceases to amaze me. Our organization is composed of remarkable individuals, who excel in their career fields and personal ambitions, and each day, I read stories in the news and in messages I receive about your successes.
Whether it’s bringing groundbreaking research discoveries to the patient’s bedside, developing new devices and processes to improve the safety and quality of patient care, or simply leading others in the pursuit of knowledge, the list of achievements is remarkable. Even the ways in which the organization has demonstrated its ability to respond to changes and challenges is something special. Lifelong learning is a core value at UTMB for these very reasons—we promote excellence and innovation through lifelong learning.
Lifelong learning makes us successful, no matter what our definition of success may be. We grow as a person through learning, and when we master a subject through continuous learning, it brings great personal satisfaction. Lifelong learning enables us to be confident, competent and knowledgeable; it increases our ability to be productive and effective at what we do, and it makes us better leaders.
I recently read an article, Extreme Exposure, in TMC News last week, about two UTMB aerospace medicine residents—James Pattarini, MD, MPH and Natacha Chough, MD, MPH—who are braving the cold during a clinical rotation in Antarctica. Written by Alex Orlando, the piece was an excellent example of how lifelong learning, through new training and experiences, helps us flourish in our individual roles, benefits our colleagues and our organization, and helps pave the road ahead for the future.
The goal of the training program, which is managed by the Center for Polar Medical Operations (CPMO) at UTMB, is to train physicians to deliver specialized care to patients that live and work in aviation and space environments. CPMO was established to manage health services at the three Antarctica stations operated by the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program—McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Palmer Station—as well as numerous seasonal field camps and two marine research vessels operated year round.
In the article, Pattarini describes his experience practicing medicine in the South Pole. It’s not a traditional care environment, so he must adapt by performing tasks he might not otherwise do: “An obvious, off-the-cuff thing is that for basic blood work, we’re doing it ourselves—there is no such thing as sending it to the lab and having them send it back. You’re going to draw the blood, take it into the back room, boot up the machine, load it in the cartridge, and then run it yourself and wait for the results to spit out. There’s no middleman.” In addition, nursing staff is limited—they are present, but often busy seeing their own patients.
I think it goes without saying that practicing medicine in the South Pole is an amazing opportunity, especially for our UTMB residents. They have a chance to study in a place on Earth where so few have traveled, and they will be able to directly apply their experiences to their work in the future. But it is also a valuable opportunity to experience firsthand the responsibilities of other roles on the care team and, in turn, gain a greater understanding of not only the whole process of patient care, but its nuances as well. In my experience, one of the greatest lessons I have learned, especially as I have taken on leadership roles, is to appreciate the work of everyone—each person’s contribution is needed to assure that we can provide great care to our patients.
In the article, Pattarini also explains that it’s often necessary to take innovative approaches to standard problems; flexibility is important. For example, his access to special equipment, like advance imaging devices, is limited, so he has to make do with the options he does have. He must also give very careful consideration to patient care decisions, because of the harsh climate and the impact such transitions in care may have on other members of the team, from both logistical and safety points of view. For example, it might become necessary to transfer someone to New Zealand for more acute care, he explains, “Our responsibility extends beyond the risk to the patient—it encompasses the risk to our emergency responders and aircrews in the event that an emergency evacuation is called for.”
Chough describes her experience: “All of us come from a pretty broad foundation, and when we train in this secondary specialty of aerospace medicine, we have to integrate our medical knowledge with a lot of components, such as working in extreme environments, interfacing with engineers and hardware, and the politics of space flight from funding to management—even the organization of the mission as a whole. It really challenges me to think about everything from a big picture standpoint while also having to care for the patient.”
Reading this story, I thought of a saying that is attributed to Confucius. It captures the transformation of experience into knowledge: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Although the South Pole is inarguably a unique care environment with very apparent challenges and limitations, in a contemporary health care environment, there are also unique situations in which the knowledge we have gathered must be applied in actual practice and to unanticipated situations—navigating those more challenging instances requires experience and innovative thinking!
It is through a passion for learning that we are able to thrive during times of challenge and change. Our body of knowledge in health care—and beyond—is always growing and developing, and through innovative thinking and the exploration of ideas, we not only gain new knowledge, but we are able to contribute to that greater body of knowledge.
Lifelong learning empowers us to be adaptable and flexible, to remain open to new approaches in our work and to the ideas of others, to recognize when processes aren’t working and then to develop creative solutions, and to effectively and efficiently utilize our resources. Most importantly, lifelong learning helps us set goals that are not based on where we are, but based on where we want to go.
“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” ― Socrates