What is a Doctor?

Recently, I had the opportunity to share my answer to this question with the entering College of Medicine class of 2018 at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center’s 20th Annual White Coat Ceremony. The event was a special occasion and culmination of the orientation program for the new medical students that received a symbolic white coat and affirmed their commitment to the profession by taking The Hippocratic Oath. I was fortunate to have a small part of the program, and related to the students and their family a story and my experience years ago on the island of Kos, Greece, the birthplace of Hippocrates born in 460 B.C.

After presenting research at a meeting of the World Society of Cardiothoracic Surgeons in Kos, Greece, I had the opportunity on my last day to visit the famous Asclepius Temple of Kos. Alone in this ancient and sacred place of healing, I ascended the three levels of temple stairs, touching the stones as I climbed. At the top I had a panoramic view of Kos framed by a border of clear blue water and beyond, Turkey. While solemnly recited the oath of Hippocrates written on a papyrus that I purchased in Kos, I touched the temple tablets upon which the diagnoses of patients were recorded and imagined the ancient physicians who congregated there thousands of years ago to learn the discipline of medicine.

The ancient healers organized the knowledge and taught the art of diagnosis and healing. I was grateful for these curators of medicine who had advanced our healing science and was humbled by the privilege of belonging to a profession with such a rich legacy. I thought about doctors who offered relief when I was ill myself and with whom I worked to heal patients in the operating room – even when hope was dwindling. The difficult cases are the most memorable and the smiles of relief from my patients and their families are unforgettable.

I descended the stairs of the temple at Kos deeply inspired and forever touched– acutely aware of my small place in medical history but also my important role in the lives of my patients. I heal. I achieve this by diagnosing an illness, a disorder, or a problem and prescribe a treatment to restore the patient’s health and ease pain. Our great advances in the discipline of medicine have expanded my arsenal of treatment but yet I have the same goals as my predecessors of over 2300 years: to heal and teach the next generation of healers. Someday I will join the past healers in mortality and say to them, “Thank you for the privilege you made possible for me.” What is a doctor? A doctor is a Disciplined, Organized, Curator and Teacher who Offers Relief to the sick and suffering.

My medical school Alma Mater welcomed over 190 new members to the healing profession on a special August afternoon in Brooklyn and indeed I was honored to share a small part of the auspicious event.


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