Friday, July 11, 2014

4 lessons from a great teacher.

I have been in school nearly my whole life (of course, repeating the first grade three times didn't help much) beginning in kindergarten and going right on through last week, when I took a Continuing Medical Education course on mosquito-borne illnesses (sounds fascinating, right?) Along the way, I have had the pleasure of having many excellent teachers, and I dedicate this post to Dr. Bob Rohner, who taught human pathology at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, NY for 40+ years (and he did it with panache!)


Robert Rohner MD

Now that I have taken up the pen, I spend a lot of time thinking about the great communicators with whom I have crossed paths, and I ask myself what it is about her/him that made he/she such an effective communicator. Why? Because writing and teaching are really about communication. If I want to write/communicate better--and I do--then study the people who could really communicate/teach. Bob Rohner was such a teacher, and after some thought, I have deduced the four methods he used to ply his craft.

1)You cannot fake sincerity and passion. One of the reasons I loved Dr. Rohner so much is that he loved what he was doing, and cared deeply about the medical profession and doctoring. At some points he seemed actually desperate to fill us with the same passion for medicine that he carried each and every day. His passion was infectious because it was sincere, not contrived. Bob performed for us every day, but it was a performance that radiated from his soul, pouring out of him like lava from a erupting volcano.

This is a tricky--but important--lesson for the writer. The writer has to be passionate about his or her writing, at all times: THERE IS NO FAKING IT. Just like the student can tell if the teacher is just going through the motions, the reader can likewise sense when the writer is just mailing it in. (Think about how many bad endings you have read--from good authors even. Ever get the sense they just wanted to hit the send button and be done with it?) Dr. Rohner never did that and neither should you.

2) Humor! Humor! Humor! I've said it before, and I'll say it again, there is almost no venue where humor does not win the day. And Dr. Bob was funny! Please keep in mind the subject material; human pathology is not the stand-up comic's stuff of dreams. But he made it funny, with brilliant asides, perfectly timed one-liners, and funny anecdotes when you needed it the most.

I write thrillers, and I have read hundreds of them as well. My favorite thriller authors (Daniel Silva, Alistair MacClean, Olen Steinhauer, Robert Wilson) are the ones that toss in small pieces of levity when you aren't expecting them--just like one of Rohner's quips right in the middle of a lecture about heart attacks.  

Humor can also help you learn and remember. I bet there is not one of Dr. Rohner's students that doesn't remember the four major complications of a heart attack, because he used the acronym FART, which he wrote across the chalkboard with big letters: 
FART; failure, arrythmia, rupture and thromboembolic phenomenon.

3) Keep it short! Bob never went over, and he often ended early, storming out of the lecture hall, muttering that "you have all heard enough from me," or "I've taken too much of your time already."

The lesson to the writer here is obvious, but important. Less is more. Never use three words when one will suffice. Delete anything (word, sentence, paragraph, chapter etc.) that isn't essential to moving the story forward. And don't overstay your welcome in the reader's attention span. (Too late, you say?)

4)Variation. You have all had a teacher that lectured start to finish in the same droning montone, without so much as a sneeze to spice things up. That was not Dr. Rohner. He changed up everything: pace, tone, mannerisms, and CONTENT. He always started fast, with urgency in his voice and lots of gesticulating. But just as your adrenaline (or caffeine level) was dropping, he slowed it way down, stood stock still, and, almost whispering, told a quick story that was somehow pertinent to becoming a good doctor. It was almost impossible to loose focus in his class, no matter how late you stayed up.

One particular story has stayed with me these many years: It was in the middle of a lecture in which Dr. Rohner felt like his students weren't paying close enough attention (and yes, that does happen in medical school.) So, Dr. Bob stopped what he was doing and waited quietly until he had everyone's attention, and then he said (something like) the following:  

You're going to regret it, you know. There's going to come a time when you lose focus, maybe just for a second, and it will cost someone his or her life. And it will haunt you--for the rest of your days. It happened to me; some one showed me a little mole, many years ago, on his toe of all places, and I did not recognize it was a melanoma. A year later this person died

I have asked to have this five minutes over again many times--but it was a request that could never be granted and so I have had to live with the fact that I might have saved his life but didn't.

Just five minutes of lost focus...

It has taken me thirty years to fully understand what Dr. Bob was doing (I never said I was a quick learner) besides trying to regain our attention. He was doing the only thing a rationale mind can do in such a circumstance, taking a horrible situation and making something good out of it. Think about the number of medical students who have heard that story, 100 students per year times 40 years in Dr. Rohner's career (math was never my strong suit, but it's a big number) and multiply that by the number of times each of Dr. Bob's students has heeded that admonition and kept focus when he or she was: desperately tired; or overwhelmed with his or her life; or in a bad way for whatever reason at all. (I count over ten such circumstances in my own career.) 

That's a lot of paying it forward.

Ok, I've taken up too much of your valuable time already. Thanks again for your attention and loyalty, and please share the link to this blog on your favorite social media outlet.

ps  And thanks Dr. Rohner, for teaching me about a lot more than pathology.

Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous), and LinkedIn (Tweets, Novels and Blogs); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at



Sue Coletta said...

I totally missed this post! Dr. Bob sounds like an amazing teacher. You were lucky to have him. I loved the cartoons you used!

Eliza Cross said...

It sounds like Dr. Rohner had a true passion for teaching and communicating, and his sense of humor helped you understand and remember serious concepts. Thanks for sharing such concrete examples, Peter - Dr. Bob would no doubt be proud!

Anonymous said...

Bob Rohner was one of a kind as a teacher. The best teacher I ever had in my life. There is not a student from that University who doesnt remember a large percentage of what he taught us, so many years ago. I wish I could be more like him.

Anonymous said...

I knew dr rohner as student .and googled him 2nite and stumbled upon your blog. He 2 was so great...yor description on the m9ney..he gave me a pearl i use everyday for 35 cytotechnologist...its made a part of my work life great .n i thank him

Obamasmells said...

Very true about him

Anonymous said...

yep, He was the guy, had him in Pathology, 40 (FORTY) years ago....for real. Never forgot some of his lectures even to this day.
A remarkable individual. Brilliant, kind, empathetic.
I always looked forward to his class. Tremendous educator and human being......

Paul Kupferberg MD said...

I am saddened to come across this message of R squarred's passing. He was an inspiration to all those lucky enough to know him. I was spell bound in his classes, and laughed in every one of his lectures. I was fortunate to have been chosen to spend one summer break performing autopsies under his direction and tutelage. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him and taught by him were given a gift that I believe is rare in medical school. He was a ray of light when when things might have appeared their darkest and overwhelming. We all will miss him dearly. Class 1970

Unknown said...

Beginning just before New Years in my 2nd year, I was invited to spend the rest of the year in daily brown-bag lunch sessions with Dr. Rohner. Others were invited but thought this was an overdose of a good thing. We would get into topics being concurrently covered in the Pathology course and relate issues back to the underlying Pathophysiology. Rohner was great for "hooks to hang your memory on!". And for diseases that were poorly understood, we would make up our own theories and debate them. It was so much fun and may have been why I later decided to become a Pathologist.

Gregory A Threatte, MD
Professor Emeritus of Pathology

Anonymous said...

The solution to pollution is dilution...

Unknown said...

a doctor without a license is no better than a phd.

Mark Ohl, M.D. said...

Thank you, Peter, for your remembrance of one of the most amazing teachers any of us will ever have. Most of my best teachers have been patients and I'm sure, as you must be, that I have forgotten MANY lackluster lectures by teachers who were less inspired than Dr. Rohner. We were blessed to have the awesome teachers (Dr. Berg, Dr. Benzo, Dr. Spring-Mills, and MANY others)that we had, but Dr. Rohner topped them all. His use of humor, personal anecdotes and mnemonics (yes, we ALL remember FART) helped us remember the tremendous volume of things we had to learn.
Thank you, again, and best wishes to Lisa and the kids!

Ciindy Elaine said...

I knew Dr Rohner well.. I worked at Upstate Medical Center Syracuse in the pathology department at Weiskotten Hall from 1977 to 1982. He was loved and revered for his compassion insight and wit. R squared was his affection inspired nickname

Ciindy Elaine said...

Too anonymous... I am a cytotechnologist as well and graduated from the CHRP at SUNY Upstate class of 1982... Cynthia Shepard