The Compass of Medicine

Fred Mandell, M.D.'64
Fred Mandell, M.D.’64

This blog post features remarks from University of Vermont Medical Alumni Executive Committee President Fred Mandell, M.D.’64. He addressed the Class of 2021 at their White Coat Ceremony October 13, 2017.

Each time a choice is made we never know, where it will stop, or what it will create and who the ripple will affect. I would like to tell you a story about choice.

Some time ago there was a very famous orchestra rehearsing for a famous concert in a very famous concert hall. The concert was a piano concerto to be played by a most renowned pianist. The rehearsal had been long and the members of the orchestra began complain that they know this piece so well, why they asked, do we have to practice over and over again. The conductor stopped the rehearsal and addressed the members of the orchestra.

“We are rehearsing,” he said, “because when we perform, we play for three people; the person who is listening to the concert for the first time. The person who is listening to the concert for the last time and the person who has paid more money than they can afford, to be there.”

At about the very same time, a mother, who had been saving bits of money for a long time for this particular concert, was buying two tickets for herself, and her six year-old son, who had just begun his piano lessons, who had never been to a concert before.

That night the mother and the son were seated in the concert hall. Behind the curtain they could hear the instruments tuning up. The lights dimmed. The mother looked next to her for her six year old son and suddenly the seat was empty. Empty! The curtain opened, and there was the boy on stage seated at the grand concert piano and he began to play the only piece he knew:  Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

As the boy played the very famous pianist came on stage. He saw the security guards racing toward the boy. The pianist had to weigh a choice. The pianist held up his hand for security to stop and pianist sat down at the piano next to the boy.

“Keep playing,” he said. And the great pianist, sitting next to the boy began the harmony of Twinkle Twinkle, all the time urging the boy to “keep playing, keep playing.” Then the orchestra picked it up and within minutes, the hundred pieces of the orchestra, the famous pianist and the six year old boy were playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the grand concert hall, and they received from the audience a standing ovation.

A doctor must constantly make decisions. Choices are the compass of medicine. The doctor does so, often without knowing the right choice was made.

I believe as a doctor, your single choice, the kind that the pianist made to allow the boy to play Twinkle Twinkle, is a wave set out, with far reaching effects, affecting those who were there and as far reaching as those of us listening to the story now.

To be a doctor in the true sense of the word is to use that almost mystical combination of science and a kind heart to make our decisions.

Only then will your predecessors at UVM, distinguished physicians, only then will Elizabeth Blackwell and William Harvey and Hippocrates and William Osler gather around and counsel you. That is the volume of the moment.

That is what your white coat stands for. This is the meeting place of the mind and the heart of every one of you who answered destiny’s call when you decided and uttered aloud the words, “I want to be a doctor.”

And every once in a while, out of the corner of your eye, while you are wearing your white coat, visualize a boy playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on the great piano, in the great concert hall and know every person you touch has a soul.

  • Read more about the Larner College of Medicine Class of 2021 White Coat Ceremony.

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