As a surgical consultant in Malawi, Dr. Raymond Nyirenda is responsible not only for performing life-saving surgeries at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, but also training junior residents.
In his complementary role as Education Coordinator for Physicians for Peace, Raymond works closely with International Medical Educators (IMEs) and collects valuable data from the field.
It’s a lot of responsibility for a young surgeon. But one advantage that set Raymond up for success was a strong surgical mentor early on; in his case, a surgeon volunteering in Malawi with Physicians for Peace.
A Strong Start as a Surgeon
To me, a teacher is someone who helps students acquire knowledge. A mentor, on the other hand, is more like an advisor and a guide.
I met my mentor, Dr. Mark Asplund, right when I started my surgical residency. He showed me what being a surgeon is like.
He was willing to take me under his wing, and what a blessing in my life and in my training that was! He showed me the ropes from the get-go and that is, I think, the most valuable foundation one could ask for as a surgeon.
“Not Just Teaching Going on Here”
I realized Dr. Asplund was a mentor when he was teaching me how to maneuver through issues on the ward. He would go above and beyond, brainstorming with me on how best to solve whatever challenges we had. That was when I thought, this is not just teaching going on here.
One of the most important things he showed me was how to manage staff. Another is how hard you need to work as a surgeon. His work ethic was amazing! He was always the first one in the ward and usually the last to leave.
He was very efficient in seeing patients and in making sure all issues on the ward were sorted out. It didn’t have to be him doing the work, but he’d assign the duties and make sure everyone did their part. Those were the biggest lessons I learned early on.
Insights From Half a World Away
Dr. Mark made a personal effort to sponsor my trip to America and further my education. I traveled there and got to work with him in an observorship in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Going to America opened my eyes to how things are ideally done. While there, I’d think about back home, and how to come up with innovative ideas that would work to produce these desired outcomes.
Amongst the things I took from this experience was how amazing the teamwork was in the hospital. It was second to none, like a well-oiled machine. It was great to see how teams can and should function.
From Mentee To (Popular) Mentor
Now that I am done with my post-graduate training, as a consultant I am responsible for teaching and mentoring in the surgery department at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.
The residents are advised to select a consultant as their mentor. Despite me being a young, new consultant, a large number of residents requested me. This is an official role, so mentorship is a big responsibility. Having so many trainees choose me was flattering, but I had to turn some of them down.
In a mentor-mentee relationship you need to demonstrate a high level of performance and high standards, because you are a role model. Talk is cheap! If your actions don’t match what you're saying, nobody will take you seriously. So you need to talk and act in accordance. It is not easy, and you really have to put in the effort.
What has surprised me the most about being a surgical educator is how much I’m enjoying it. It’s rewarding to watch my mentees thrive. Also, whenever I’m teaching, I feel like I'm learning at the same time. There is that saying: “if you teach, you learn twice.”
So this is been a very rich experience. With IMEs still coming to Malawi, I want to keep learning from them, and impart what they teach to my mentees.
Tap here to read Dr. Asplund's account of their mentee-mentor relationship!
Seven years later, Raymond and Dr. Mark reunited on a Zoom call. Watch it here: