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In Memory of Dr. Martin Gardy   As I did last year around the holidays, I’m going to share a more personal story in this December’s newsletter. Earlier this year, a wonderful physician and teacher, Dr. Martin Gardy – my mentor at Cornell Medical College – passed away. Without question, Dr. Gardy was the most influential teacher in my life. Like all great teachers, he taught by example. He was also an incredibly articulate and wise man, and he shared a lot of pearls of wisdom with me.

Dr. Gardy was such an inspirational person that I would like to share some of the lessons I learned from him. These are not just lessons in medicine; they are lessons in life. These are the things that you can’t learn from a book. This is not conventional wisdom. In fact, much of what he said and did ran contrary to conventional thought, which made him a great leader.

Brilliance & Enthusiasm: The first time I heard Dr. Gardy lecture our class, I was struck with an almost childlike enthusiasm and wonder of medicine. There appeared to be not a shred of cynicism in him. He absolutely loved medicine and felt it was a privilege to be a doctor. Yet, as I would soon learn, he was not a pushover. He demanded excellence from his students. He was always pleasant and supportive, but his classes and examinations were extraordinarily challenging.

During his first lecture, standing in front of 100 new medical students, he posed several questions to the class. When someone would raise their hand to answer his question, he would address them by their first name, though he’d never met any of us previously: “Yes, Bob…what do you think?” Dr. Gardy had a phenomenal memory and he had memorized the names and faces of every student in the class by looking at the class photograph before his first lecture.

I once stayed up until 3am preparing for a presentation for Dr. Gardy in a small group of 6 medical students. I did not dare go into such a situation without knowing my stuff. During my presentation, I cited a paper from the medical literature that had been written 13 years earlier in the Journal of the American Medical Association. I had just read the paper the night before. Dr. Gardy did not know what papers I would be using for my presentation. After my summary he said, “That’s very interesting. Do you remember the table at the bottom of page 237 in the lower right hand corner, with those thirteen patients?” In a state of shock, I said that I remembered the chart. However, I heard nothing he said after that, because I realized that he had just pulled that paper from his memory, having read it at the time of its publication more than a decade ago. Though the existence of a photographic memory has been questioned by some experts, Dr. Gardy had one. The guy remembered everything.

Dr. Gardy’s Pearls: I could go on about the man and his humanity, and tell you many more colorful stories. Instead, in this brief space, I would like to share some of his thoughts; things he said that will hopefully have some meaning for your life.  
1) “It is not enough to be well-intentioned.” Dr. Gardy was a compassionate and caring man. However, he did not believe that everyone deserved a trophy. He also placed no use on good intentions. He demanded excellent results. He believed in academic excellence, because he knew that a lack of knowledge and competence could cost a life. Dr. Gardy failed one-third of the class in our first exam in a special program that he designed to prepare us for the future of medicine. It was a difficult test in an innovative, new program. The Dean was outraged that he had written such a tough exam. No professor had ever failed one-third of Cornell students. This just didn’t happen. Six to eight percent of students might fail any given exam, but never a third of the class! Many students complained. But the complaints were irrelevant to Dr. Gardy. He knew that the skill set he was introducing was critical for our professional development. Students could retake an exam if they failed it and learn from their failure. But he was not going to dumb down the material. At the end of my senior year, the Dean of the medical college fired Dr. Gardy. Dr. Gardy had served as the director of the 3rd Year Internal Medicine Clerkship for 23 years at Cornell. Ironically, a week prior to being fired by the Dean, Dr. Gardy was voted by our class as Teacher of the Year. Such is the politics at an academic medical center. However, even after he had failed so many students, the majority of us – including many who failed the exam – voted for Dr. Gardy as Teacher of the Year for one reason: he deserved it.   

2) “Grow by examining your weaknesses.”
When I came in for my evaluation with Dr. Gardy after the 3rd year medical clerkship he said, “I am going to tell you what your professors and residents have said about you. Some of it is positive; some of it is negative. I would recommend that you listen carefully to the negative and that you not try to deny or defend any unflattering statements that have been made. In my experience, the professors at this institution generally don’t say things about students without good reason. Unless you can listen to legitimate criticism, and learn to strengthen your weaknesses, you will never be a great physician.” Ouch! 

3) “The reason that people are so fragile is that they worry about what others think of them.”
As noted above, Dr. Gardy was not indifferent to criticism and he respected the opinions of his colleagues. He thought deeply about all problems and listened to what others had to say. However, he learned that to be a truly strong individual, you had to learn to trust your own observations. If people criticized him without merit, it simply never penetrated. He realized that most people were too concerned with the opinions of others, they needed acceptance, and this made them fragile. He taught us to be intellectually independent. He taught us to cultivate intellectual honesty. So even when he was fired by the Dean, he maintained his dignity and his composure. He knew who he was, which made him impervious to unwarranted attacks that would have crushed people with a weaker internal compass. 

4) “Anticipate complications and plan for them.”
During the time that I trained, young doctors were given a great deal more responsibility than they are today. Interns were on their own at 3 am in the hospital to care for very sick patients. To awaken your resident for a patient with a medical problem while on-call was considered to be a sign of weakness. This was the medical culture at the time. Dr. Gardy prepared us for the rigors of internships by telling us to read and think about all of the possible complications that our patients might experience before we went to bed. If we had a patient with cirrhosis, we should know everything that could happen to that patient in the middle of the night, and know how to respond to a crisis. He said, “When you get a call in the middle of the night from the nurse, you don’t want to be asking yourself how to deal with a crisis, as you are pulling your pants up around your ankles.” He said, “When I first started thinking this way, and anticipating all of the possible complications of my patients, I was afraid that it might make me neurotic. But it didn’t. Instead, it gave me confidence and peace of mind.” In other words, he taught us to be very proactive problem solvers, not reactors to problems. He taught us to look at medicine as a chess game; not a game of checkers. 

5) On Elitism:
As I write these words and share this final pearl from Dr. Gardy, I so wish he were here to give a talk to the nation’s students and teachers. Not just to medical students and professors, but to every student and teacher at every level of education. He said, “Unfortunately, the word elitism has taken on negative connotations in our society. Elitism is not about a group of people pretending to be better than others. Elitism involves a group of people who make a conscious decision to set very high standards themselves; standards that are higher than those around them. They consciously decide that they are going to train to perform at the highest possible level. There is nothing negative about elitism in this sense. You, as Cornell students, are part of an elite group. You should not be like other medical students. Cornell students should thrive, not merely survive.” And by his example, he set the bar for all of us.

It has always been my goal to live life to the fullest. And Dr. Gardy certainly did that. He inspired and mentored 23 classes of medical students at Cornell Medical College during his teaching career and he was an extraordinary clinician. His skills as a diagnostician were widely sought after. He was a diagnostic internist without peer. 

After graduation, I thanked Dr. Gardy for everything that he had done for me. He responded by saying, “It is the job of a teacher to help a student to become something that he could never have become on his own.” And that is what he did for me. He helped me become something that I could never have become on my own. 

Whatever clinical skills I have today, I owe in great part to the teachings of Dr. Martin Gardy. To quote Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”