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The Mentor: Dr. Duncan McRae, Jr.

Dr. Duncan McRae began his education in medicine and surgery as a teenager at the side of his father, a surgeon in McRae, Georgia. After completing his education at Vanderbilt University and University of Virginia, he began a successful career as a general surgeon In Montgomery, Alabama. Although teaching was not part of his original plan, he now finds himself as Associate Professor of Medicine for the University of Alabama School of Medicine, Montgomery Regional Campus. We’ll talk about that evolution from practitioner to mentor in this episode of Rx for Success.

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Dr. McRae currently works as advisor and teacher of third year medical students for the UAB School of Medicine, Montgomery Regional Campus. He received his MD degree from Vanderbilt University and his surgical training at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, VA. After completion of his training in 1981, he and his family moved to Montgomery, AL where he practiced General Surgery for 33 years until he transitioned to Surgical Clerkship Director for UABSOM in 2014. For the past 5 years he has been working with medical students and learning the nuances of medical education.

Dr. McRae’s Prescription for Success:

Number 1: “I must say that my idea of success is a sense of accomplishment of my purpose. And I like to think that my purpose is to help and heal as many people as I can in my career. I have focused primarily on the patient. Now again there is a second side of that success. That second side is maintaining a balance with your family. I don’t see how one can be successful without maintaining this balance between family and medicine. People have written reams on that.

Number 2: “I think the number one thing as a physician, you must keep the patient as the top priority. I am really concerned about the forces that act on medicine right now. I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball in front of me to understand where medicine is going, but there are forces that are acting on medicine to distract the physician from that top priority. Those forces being, of course, the people who pay physicians who are insisting on greater efficiency, greater speeds, see more patients, perhaps not even see the patients. I know some physicians who are considered no touch doctors. I can’t help believe that that is misguided. Perhaps I sound like a 19th century physician, but I believe that if the goal is to heal, then you have to be by the bedside of the patient and you have to examine the patient.”

Number 3: “I think one must surround himself with excellence. By that I mean go to partners who are better than you. Go to partners who make you a better surgeon or a better physician. Choose partners who exemplify your ideals of caring for patients, ideals of learning.”

Number 4: “Be humble. It is important to recognize your own limitations. I think it’s important to ask for advice when you need it. I think that the physician, in particular, the surgeon, in the midst of that humility must be courageous.”

Number 5: “Be bold, but not foolish. The wringing of hands is a problem. It’s okay to wring your hands for a moment and come to a decision, but when you recognize a direction to follow, pursue it.”

Connect with Dr. McRae:

Notable quotes from Dr. McRae’s interview:

Growing up in McRae was a lot of fun. It was my sister’s suggestion that we grew up in Mayberry, as did Andy Griffith. But I’m not really sure about that. It depends on which side of the tracks she grew up on, I suspect in retrospect.
I often wonder what in the world would I have done had I changed courses or not been accepted in medical school? There was really no plan B for me. I was fortunate that things seemed to work out.
My father was not necessarily a warm and fuzzy person, but he was a guy who insisted on fairness to everyone and and watching him deal with everyone, he lived up to that creed, he was very consistent and he took care of all comers. And he did not tolerate, even consideration of, doing less than what he should have been doing.
And in the hospitals in that small town, we had wonderful people working, too. Everybody was working hard to make sure people were treated properly. My pursuit of medicine was reinforced by so many of the nurses there. I remember one wonderful woman who worked in the operating room asked if I’d ever given a shot or if I knew how to give a shot. And she rendered herself the guinea pig for me to give my first injection of saline into her. She was a brave woman. I can’t imagine doing that or seeing other people do that.
And I also liked the idea of having a target to aim for, that most surgeons have as they a direct their energies toward a problem as in appendicitis or colon cancer or something like that. That always appealed to me.
And so within five to six years, I found myself doing majority thyroid, parathyroid, and breast surgery, although I still continued with bread and butter, general surgery. So it’s difficult to kind of pinpoint exactly why, how, or when, but by the time I stepped back from the operating table, most of my surgery was endocrine and breast.
I think we would all agree that the past 30 years have seen enormous advances in treatment of breast cancer patients from all aspects. And that’s been a lot of fun.
…there’s no question, there’ve been cultural changes over the past 50 years and these young people have varying monikers; right now they’re called millennials and there are certain attitudes that are attached to them and I try not to stereotype these young people. There are a lot more, but one of the glaring differences, is that there are a lot more women involved. Half of the medical school classes, at least, are female. I think that is as it probably should be.
[Medical students] can spot a fraud a mile away. They are much better versed in the biochemistry and genetics of everything that we talk about; what they lack is practical experience. And so I look upon my job as that to talk about the practical aspects of medicine. They can talk to me all day about the biochemistry of renal function. But what they don’t know about is how to treat somebody who has low urine output, low blood pressure, what fluids, how fast, things like that. So that is eye-opening to them. They soak it up like sponges and they’re anxious to learn everything they can about that.
I have learned that it’s important to be quick to let [medical students] know what you don’t know. I’ve had a very good experience with the students. It does keep you in contact with different generations and I think that’s healthy, for me anyway. I hope for them as well.

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