Mentorship in Medicine

My name is Mekala Neelakantan, and, as baffling as it is to say, I am now in my fourth and final year of medical school. I’ve learned a lot of things about myself along the way - my strengths, my weaknesses, my values, my aspirations. But by far, one of the most important lessons through this discovery was the idea of mentorship.



This is where Dr. Reem Itani of the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles comes in. We met through the American Academy of Pediatrics Mentorship Program - a resource designed to connect students interested in Pediatrics with physicians across the country. She had never had a mentee through the program before, and I was a curious student who wanted to see who I could connect with. Needless to say, it was a perfect match.


So, when I came across SheMD, I realized what a valuable opportunity it could be to talk a bit about our journey - in hopes that it would spark similar mentorships for other students and physicians.


It is a story that transcends geography and hierarchy, and above all, displays the power of women supporting women.


I sat down (virtually) with Dr. Itani to have an introspective discussion about mentorship thus far (she has promised me that she will be my mentor forever), and here are some things we learned:


Our First Impressions


Dr. Itani: To be completely honest, I was shocked to be contacted through the AAP Portal. I had forgotten I signed up for the AAP Mentorship opportunity! I was struck by your courage in reaching out to someone you didn’t know to seek advice. Being a medical student is hard enough--I remember never feeling “in the right place” so I was very impressed that you had insight into what you wanted out of the relationship. When I spoke to you for the first time, I found you to be a bright young woman with a lot of potential. It was and continues to be a pleasure to catch up and innovate with you almost weekly!


Me: I have had such wonderful mentorship experiences at my home institution and thought that the AAP Mentorship Program could be an interesting way to expand and collaborate with doctors across the country. To tell the truth, when I saw that you had accepted my mentorship request, I was surprised- and very nervous! It was one thing to sign up, but a whole other ballgame to actually speak with you. However, I do have to say that my trepidation dissolved completely during our first call - I thought it was very telling how quickly that first hour passed by. You clearly wanted to know about me, my interests, and my aspirations, and it was so comforting to feel that - even though it was our first conversation - you wanted the best for me!


Our Expectations


Dr. Itani: Hmm, well, I didn’t have any initial expectations! This was the first time I had been contacted through the AAP portal, and the first time I was called upon to advise someone I didn’t know at all. But I think as I began to know you a bit more as a student and person, I saw that physical distance really did not limit very much with regards to the mentorship. While at first, I thought I would talk to you about different pediatric residency programs in the midwest and on the west coast, I soon began seeing that our discussions and capabilities could be taken to even more places.


Me: I’d say the same for me! I was excited just to connect with you and listen to your own journey - I think it’s so valuable for students and budding physicians to understand the paths of full-fledged doctors. It’s so empowering, and makes us realize that there are so many ways to achieve your dreams! Like you said as well, I was expecting to discuss the path toward Pediatrics residency, but quickly realized that our mentorship would consist of so much more.


The Most Valuable Thing We Taught Each Other


Dr. Itani: I hope I conveyed that fluidity with respect to medicine and career goals is a normal part of every person’s time in being a doctor. As a young career physician, I felt akin to the anxieties of residency and even medical school, but I wanted to show you that shaping your career as a physician is a lifelong process that hardly stops after choosing what specialty you want to pursue.


Me: It is funny to think of me having taught you something! Needless to say, I hope that- through my own journey - I have demonstrated to you what a unique ability you have to lift up those around you! I know we have spoken about the idea of courage and persistence throughout our mentorship, but you should know that a large portion of those qualities were brought forth by you. The life of an attending can be tough, and in those difficult moments, I hope you never forget what a wonderful human being you are! So, I guess I’m saying, that I hope I taught you a bit more about how amazing you are!


The Most Valuable Thing We Learned from Each Other


Dr. Itani: Your curiosity and persistence is infectious! You have pushed me to seek out opportunities and counsel in areas that I otherwise would have been hesitant. More importantly you have taught me that mentorship is leadership in its truest form: as a mentor, you are responsible for setting the stage for success, but the most beautiful and rewarding aspects are watching your mentee blossom and succeed.


Me: Truly, the most valuable thing I learned from you was what it means to be a mentor. It’s hard work to understand the aspirations and qualities of a person, and then further it along in achievable ways. You have such a well-balanced way of listening, while providing key guidance for me to forge my own path - you have never diminished my questions or concerns, and you have always done your best to assist in developing my knowledge and experiences!


What Drew Us to Develop this Mentorship in the First Place


Dr. Itani: Mekala, you are truly a joy to mentor and you make the process easy. I am not sure if you did work on knowing how to be a good mentee, but you have all the elements of an excellent one. I think your persistence in the beginning on continuing to talk was what laid the foundation of the mentorship, but to be honest, it is our friendship--we are going through a pandemic together!--that fosters the continued growth.


Me: I think I really learned what it means to be a “mentee” through my experience with you! As far as the growth of our mentorship, it was just so natural. There was something about our first conversation, and your clear passion and enthusiasm for the field that I hope to be a part of, that made me want to develop this bond. Looking back, I am so thankful that I wasn’t afraid to keep reaching out! It is so easy to speak with you, and I’d like to think that you have become an older sister of sorts for me.


Mentorship is priceless. And sometimes - the mentor-mentee relationship develops in the most unexpected ways!


In a magical way, it makes you realize that the sky’s the limit - something that is important to remember, especially during the tougher and lonelier parts of medical school. Dr. Itani has taught me so much about what it means to be an absolutely passionate, driven, kindhearted physician, and I hope to make her proud as I continue my own journey. Even more than that, I hope to be a physician mentor to my own medical student one day, just as she is for me.


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