His journey from educator ‘burnout’ to top-tier teacher
When Associate Professor of Medicine Larry Cripe, MD, is asked about his recent recognition as both an exemplary teacher and physician mentor at Indiana University School of Medicine, he doesn’t give the expected response about how it’s an honor to train up the next generation of doctors. Instead, he humbly states: “This is really a bit of a redemption story.”
Not that long ago, Cripe—a hematologist with IU Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center—admits, he didn’t consider himself a good teacher.
“I was frustrated and disappointed in my teaching. Frankly, I wasn’t enjoying it at all anymore,” Cripe candidly stated. “I thought, ‘The students can’t be enjoying themselves either, and they can’t be learning from me.’”
With the click of a button, he could’ve trashed the email that came across his desk seeking volunteers for the Physician Mentor program. He’s grateful he responded.
What transpired over the next four years has transformed the way Cripe teaches and interacts with learners. He’s gone from being, in his own words, “feeling I was failing as an educator,” to being awarded the Indiana University Board of Trustees’ Teaching Award and named IU School of Medicine’s 2020 Physician Mentor of the Year.
“Dr. Larry Cripe is an extraordinary role model for the next generation of physicians,” said Naga Chalasani, MD, associate dean for clinical research and interim chair for the Department of Medicine. “His mentoring of medical students and other learners in compassion and professionalism is exemplary.”
One of Cripe’s mentees, Ashleigh Omorogbe, a newly degreed medical doctor starting her residency in emergency medicine at The George Washington University Hospital, said Dr. Cripe challenged her and the other students in their small mentorship group to “find meaning in our thoughts, beliefs and actions. He helped us explore parts of ourselves we often ignore.”
These mentorship sessions, held periodically throughout all four years of medical school, proved valuable for both mentor and mentees.
“These young people were really generous,” Cripe said. “Good young people go into medicine for good reasons. At the end of medical school, they often doubt their reasons. My goal was to help them understand the culture and expectations of medicine so they could protect their reasons.”
Cripe, too, was on a journey of rediscovering personal passions.
“A year or so before I became a mentor, I stepped back from some administrative and leadership roles because I wanted to enjoy the remainder of my professional life,” he said. “I was very much in a transition to reconnecting with the research questions that interested me and what I enjoyed about practicing medicine and teaching.”
Rakesh Mehta, MD, interim division chief for Hematology/Oncology, recognizes one of Cripe’s greatest strengths as a physician working with leukemia patients: his passion for understanding each patient’s values and goals in order to cooperatively craft a management plan for their care.
“I believe he also applies this concept of shared decision-making with his learners, seeing each learner as a unique individual with their own beliefs and aspirations,” said Mehta. “Therefore, he works with his learners to create a shared education plan, which allows everyone to learn from, and enjoy, the experience.”
Much like the medical students, residents and fellows he teaches, Cripe often feels overwhelmed by the volume of information to master and apply. Instead of lecturing, he’s learning to make space for conversations, allowing students to develop curiosity by grappling with complex questions and situations that arise in medical practice.
“I deliberately cultivate humility, acknowledging, especially to the residents, the things they find confusing are also confusing to me, and the things they struggle with, I also struggle with,” Cripe said.
For Omorogbe, one especially memorable moment came when Cripe gave each of his mentees a copy of a letter written to him years before by a grieving—and angry—individual whose parent had died while under Cripe’s care. He kept it in a drawer in his office, a reminder of the humanity involved in caring for critically ill individuals—and their family members.
“That certainly was the most vulnerable and challenging event in my life,” Cripe said. His purpose for sharing it with his mentees was simply, “I didn’t want them to see me as ‘the expert.’ I wasn’t there to teach them medicine as a science—biochemistry or anatomy. My goal was to help them mature into physicians as they learned the science.”
What he did teach, according to Omorogbe, was empathy and the value of honest communication.
“He taught us soft skills we weren’t getting a lot of exposure to at that time in our medical training,” she said.
Cripe bristles at the term soft skills: “These aren’t soft skills,” he said. “These are the harder skills—having challenging conversations and showing you care.”
“Dr. Cripe reminded us that we are human before anything else,” wrote Omorogbe in her nomination of him for Physician Mentor of the Year. “He encouraged us to remember why we chose this journey.”
As much as the mentorship meetings meant to Omorogbe, she also noticed a transformation in her mentor. Cripe began doing more writing (both professional and personal), leading to stimulating conversations on the meaning of both life and death.
“He seemed to get brighter,” Omorogbe observed. “During this time, Dr. Cripe has watched me grow, and I feel I have had the privilege of watching him grow as well.”
Her mentor would not disagree.
“I’m now more collegial, I think,” said Cripe, “We’re in this together; let’s figure it out.”
While he has always strived to partner with patients, he’s learned to do the same with students, residents and fellows.
“The conversation with someone with a serious illness is not dissimilar to conversations with residents trying to learn how to navigate the complicated health system,” he concluded. “It’s all about being overwhelmed, but trying to find points of traction to move forward with purpose.”
Cripe’s first mentees have now graduated and are heading off to residency programs, but he is eager to take on a new group of first-year medical students in the fall.
“It was such a great experience for me,” said the 2020 Physician Mentor of the Year. “It’s so affirming. It reminds me why I went into medicine.”
Learn more about the selection process for the Physician Mentor of the Year award and to see a list of other 2020 nominees and Outstanding Physician Mentor award recipients. To learn more about the Physician Mentor program at IU School of Medicine, or to apply as a physician mentor, visit the program webpage.