Appreciating The Mentors Who Molded Our Careers

Stephen Barrett DPM FACFAS

If you look up the definition of “mentor,” you will find several definitions. Generally, it means a “wise and trusted teacher or counselor.” Finding the right mentor can not only have a great influence on your surgical skills, it may significantly redefine your approach to patient care.

I have had the great fortune to find a few great mentors along the way. They have shaped my surgeon equation very positively and still are shaping it for that matter. No, I am not talking about unemployed Bob down at the coffee shop who gives me “insider trading” advice when I pick up my double non-fat decaffeinated vanilla bean latte espresso. I am talking about real, true giants.

Consider every variable in the surgical outcome equation I have discussed in previous blogs.

Surgical Outcome = ∑[(AD + PE) * (SCλ +POM)]*Pt.E

AD= accurate diagnosis
PE= patient education
SCλ=surgical competence times lambda, which is a coefficient of experience and training
POM= postoperative management
Pt.E= patient expectations

Now think back about your mentor(s) and see how many variables they have positively influenced for you in your equation.

Being a mentor is also a good thing when you realize the solemn duty and responsibility that you assume. What a great gift you are bestowing upon another individual when you become his or her mentor. You also have the additional pressure to aspire and climb to a higher level personally so you can be a better mentor. It is kind of like that internal John Wooden or Lou Holtz who keeps pushing you harder than you thought you possibly could bear. If you are not a surgical mentor to someone now, make it your goal to become one by increasing your level of knowledge and expertise, and taking additional training that you can pass on to those in your sphere of influence.

Now consider the value of mentorship for surgeons. The surgeon has the ultimate responsibility for the caring and execution of the best diagnostic acumen, exacting intraoperative technique, adept postoperative management and true compassion for the patient during the whole process to obtain a surgical outcome that is stellar. There is simply no greater gift a person can give to you than for him or her to select you as his or her surgeon. You are a person who heals people. You impact and change lives to a great extent. This is pretty heavy stuff when you boil it down. Thank your mentor now or go find one quick.

Paying Homage To My Greatest Mentor

Now I want to talk about my main mentor.

Sir Isaac Newton famously claimed: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” I started standing on the shoulders of this man many years ago and I can say that I have been enabled to help patients to an extent I never dreamed possible. In fact the first week I spent with him in clinic, I kept having all these patients’ faces flash back in my mind. I thought, “Oh yeah, there is something I can do for them.”

I want to give you some statistics to illustrate the far reaching and geometric effect he has had not only on me but literally thousands of patients. I am going to give you some real numbers and some extrapolations.

He has written five books, contributed 75 chapters in scientific medical texts and published over 400 peer-reviewed journal articles. He has trained more than 350 surgeons in the U.S. and throughout the world in peripheral nerve surgery. He has received 21 national research awards during his career. He has developed surgery to improve psoriasis, hypernasal speech and developed surgical approaches to address lower extremity nerve entrapments.

You all know who I am talking about by now. For those few podiatric surgeons who have been in an Antarctic outpost for the last two decades, the “giant” I am talking about is A. Lee Dellon, MD.

Dr. Dellon is a Professor of Plastic and Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and has been recently honored by having an endowed chair for a professorship within the Department of Surgery named after him. The A. Lee Dellon Chair in Peripheral Nerve Surgery at Johns Hopkins University will be the first endowed chair in peripheral nerve surgery in the world.

I cannot think of anyone who has contributed more to our profession as a non-podiatrist than Dr. Dellon. If you have read any of my earlier blogs about our own association, the Association of Extremity Nerve Surgeons (AENS), you will recall how much impact this has had for so many of us. More importantly, recall how many lives have been positively affected by this group of dedicated surgeons. The AENS is an independent group that is now carrying on research and training that largely emanated from Dr. Dellon’s research and training of other surgeons.

Peripheral nerve surgery reportedly restores sensation and helps prevent ulceration (and subsequently reduces the risk of potential amputation) in approximately 3,600 patients with diabetes each year.1

This has huge personal and global ramifications. How much money does this save all of us? Patients, insurers, employers, family caregivers and all the rest of the taxpaying citizens are benefiting from Dr. Dellon’s observation back in the 1980s that you could restore sensation and prevent ulceration in patients with diabetic peripheral neuropathy with superimposed nerve compression via peripheral nerve surgical decompression.2-4 How about a number for just this year alone? This saves $20 million. What about the next 10 years? Try $200 million. This is far-reaching, truly incalculable stuff.

In addition to the honor which this chair bestows to Dr. Dellon, it also benefits all of our profession and patients tangentially and many of us directly. The research and resultant clinical applications that this professorship will generate will improve many of the variables in our personal surgeon outcomes equation. In order for this chair to become endowed, there has to be money donated. I have personally committed to making a considerable donation to get this done. Whether you have a passion for peripheral nerve surgery or just realize the impact that this can make to help patients, please make a pledge or donation so this academic chair can become funded.

You can contact Kathleen P. Hertkorn, the Director of Development in the Department of Surgery at the Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine at

I wish you all a happy holiday season and I would like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Dellon for being my mentor.


1. Aszmann O, Tassler PL, Dellon AL: Changing the natural history of diabetic neuropathy: incidence of ulcer/amputation in the contralateral limb of patients with a unilateral nerve decompression procedure. Ann Plast Surg 2004; 53(6):517-522.
2. Dellon AL: Diabetic neuropathy: review of a surgical approach to restore sensation, relieve pain, and prevent ulceration and amputation. Foot Ankle Int 2004; 25(10):749-755.
3. Dellon AL: Neurosurgical prevention of ulceration and amputation by decompression of lower extremity peripheral nerves in diabetic neuropathy: update 2006. Acta Neurochir Suppl 2007; 100:149-151.
4. Dellon AL, Dellon ES, Seiler WAt: Effect of tarsal tunnel decompression in the streptozotocin-induced diabetic rat. Microsurgery 1994; 15(4):265-268.

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