If education is ‘the lighting of a fire,’ my pediatrics education has ‘burnt me to a crisp’!

Eric and Stephanie Crossen graduate from medical school.

Every day as I entered the doors to my medical school’s primary lecture hall, I passed a plaque on the wall displaying a quote attributed to William Butler Yeats. Apparently, there is some contention about whether the famous Irish literary figure actually coined the following phrase, but it remains a powerful statement for both learners and teachers.

Printed on that plaque were the words, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” If Yeats’ metaphor is taken literally, then my education in pediatrics over the last three years has burnt me to a crisp.

I am nearing the end of my three years of pediatric residency at OHSU Doernbecher, and I am overwhelmed by the events that have transpired, the lessons I have learned, and the lasting impact made by those who have taught me.

Some readers may be asking, “What is a resident?” and rightly so. A resident is a doctor completing the final stage of formal medical education needed to earn a medical license. Formal medical education is a long process comprising multiple stages with varying degrees of awkwardness. In that sense, it is a lot like the developmental stages of becoming an adult.

There are the pre-adolescent, a.k.a. pre-med, years in college when you are literally growing too big for your britches and you have no idea what you don’t know. Then there is medical school, full of so many new ideas both weird and wonderful that it can only be described as pubertal. Finally, there is residency training, which is akin to late adolescence, a time for exploring your passion, shouldering greater responsibility and learning to function independently. For 13 third-year pediatric residents here at OHSU, adulthood is about to begin.

For me, it is unnerving. Residency has been my life for three years. I know what to expect, and I know what to do. I know what role I play here, or more accurately what roles I have played. I have been an intern (or first-year resident), that most wide-eyed and enthusiastic species of resident (amazingly, not endangered). I have been a senior resident, that wary team captain filled with the grim determination to keep the ship afloat even if it means plugging up leaks in the hull with empty cups from Starbuck’s.

Eric Frossen shaves his head to raise money for childhood cancer research.

Unlike in medical school, our classrooms no longer have plaques outside their doors, but instead exam room numbers. Our lessons are taught by patients, families and physician mentors, as well as countless nurses, respiratory therapists, social workers, care managers, psychologists, physical/occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and other hospital/clinical staff.In residency, our greatest lessons come through experiential learning. We are apprentices learning our craft under the tutelage of professionals who are “dedicated to the health of all children” (the motto of the American Academy of Pediatrics) as well as to the education of those who aspire to join their ranks.

Gradually, as residency progresses, our physician mentors retreat to the sidelines where they are always ready to intervene when needed, but provide the most support through cheerleading and reassurance.

We are learning by doing in its truest sense. We still have lectures and discussions, but even the teaching in those settings is attached to patient histories or specific hospital encounters. In residency, patient care gives meaning to the mass of medical knowledge that we have been building for nearly a decade of our lives.

Just because residency is about to end for 13 aspiring pediatricians here at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital does not mean that residency at OHSU Doernbecher will end. The wheel will keep spinning and a new batch of medical school graduates will soon join the ranks of the OHSU Doernbecher pediatric residency program.

The Doernbecher Pediatric Residency Program encourages a “healthy work-life balance.”

To that incoming class, I give my heartiest congratulations. They have earned the privilege of continuing their education at OHSU. By July 1 they will have embarked on an odyssey of non-stop learning. That learning will happen at the patient’s bedside. Sometimes the knowledge will come hurtling at them at breakneck speed in the intensive care unit. Other lessons will come in 28-hour sleepless chunks on the pediatric ward. And in the newborn nursery, all of them will learn that most integral universal truth: to always let sleeping babies lie.

For my part, the learning is nowhere close to being finished. But I am to the point where I have experienced enough that I can start giving back like my mentors: through teaching. Next year I will continue working at OHSU Doernbecher as one of two chief residents in pediatrics, and primary among my duties will be helping to educate the current pediatric residents and medical students who rotate through the children’s hospital on their pediatric clerkship.

I hope in this new role that I will be able to ignite a spark in the experiential learning of others, and pass on some measure of the knowledge, abilities, and compassion that my years as a pediatric resident at OHSU have kindled in me.

Eric Crossen, M.D.
Third-Year Resident in Pediatrics
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital