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The personalised approach

An effortless educator inspired Luke Sansom MD

Luke Sansom

Posted: Friday, November 1, 2019


Mr James Ball

During one of my first rotations I was timetabled to attend a weekly corneal clinic with Mr James Ball (Corneal and Refractive Surgeon, St James’ University Hospital, Leeds, UK). As I waited, slightly nervously, in his clinic room on my first day I was met by a warm handshake and a welcoming smile. I was invited to take a seat and we talked.

Seemingly unfazed by the increasingly busy waiting room Mr Ball asked me about my life, my career and my aspirations. Here was someone who really cared, not necessarily so much about whether I could list every corneal dystrophy or the disadvantages of LASEK, but about what made me tick. Someone who clearly appreciated that the more he understood about an individual resident, the better he could enhance their experience, identify and work on their deficiencies and ultimately develop a more rounded, self-reflective and happy surgeon.

Each week Mr Ball would arrive from his busy morning theatre to a frequently overbooked clinic and a scrum of residents and fellows looking for advice. Rather than showing displeasure or frustration he would launch into his work with the vitality and vigour of a Lieutenant Colonel rallying his troops into battle and tackling each problem with a reassuring calmness, utter clarity and unwavering charm.

He had an uncanny ability to remember not just his patients but details about their lives and families too. He invariably found ways to relate to each patient, be that joking about homework with teenagers to regaling a retired hairdresser with entertaining stories of his own mother’s life in the same profession.

This personalised approach to each patient which allowed him to build rapport and develop trust was akin to finding a unique key to a locked door and opening it. Here was someone who seemingly could nearly always find that key. A metaphorical locksmith. Over time you could see within my fellow residents some of the mannerisms and techniques that they, like me, had observed, adopted and rehearsed. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who was impressed.

It is often when I feel particularly tired, rushed or frustrated that I recall the best piece of advice that Mr Ball gave me. To treat every task and operation, even seemingly the simplest, like it was the most complex and challenging that you have ever faced. A statement from a man so clearly obsessed with not just wanting to do the right thing, but determined to execute that plan to the absolute best of his abilities.

It is these lessons, the ones that cannot be learnt by reading a textbook or attending a lecture, that have stuck with me until this day. It is likely that Mr Ball may well have never known that I considered him my mentor should I not have written this article, which in many ways makes the impact he has had all the more impressive. His ability to seemingly effortlessly educate, guide and inspire showed true mentorship indeed and for that I am truly grateful.

Dr Sansom is a Specialty Trainee at the York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Yorkshire, UK