Via Basel: Interview with a Mentor
Dr. Basel Al-Aswad is the father of Escape Into Life’s founding editor, Christopher R. Al-Aswad (1979-2010). Basel was a mentor to his son and is still a mentor to doctors entering his field. Basel will continue his mentoring at EIL by way of his Via Basel contributions here—short essays, speeches, or interviews. Below is a two-part interview held before and after a recent mentoring experience.
Escape Into Life: Basel, you are an experienced orthopedic surgeon who mentors new doctors in your field. As I understand it, you sometimes host a gathering of the resident doctors training at your hospital in order to facilitate this mentoring in a more informal, celebratory setting. What usually goes on at meetings like this?
Basel Al-Aswad: The mentoring meeting is usually held in the evenings on a weekday about 6:30 PM. Once a month, hosted on a rotating basis by the active teaching surgeons at the different hospitals where the residents rotate. There are about fifteen to eighteen residents and five orthopedic attending physicians. Starts with discussions of selected articles in orthopedic literature and journals along with or followed by food, drinks, and socializing. It is nearly always in a side room of a well known restaurant.
EIL: Such a celebration is planned for Tuesday, August 19, at your home in Chicago. The last time you hosted this event was in July of 2010, and you approach the upcoming event with a mix of feelings. Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances of the last gathering?
Basel Al-Aswad: I have always hosted these meetings (called Journal Club) at my home, and order or have my family cook Middle Eastern food. I felt it was more personal at home than in a restaurant. The last one was on July 27th, 2010. It was going well and everybody had a good time, enjoying the food and discussions. Then, towards the end, when people started leaving, I got a call from the Emergency Room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital telling me my son was in the ER and I had to come right away. They did not tell me his condition on the phone but I had a sinking feeling to expect the worse. Some of the residents were still there and eventually found out that he had passed away that evening. Since then I had not hosted a Journal Club till now. I am close to retirement, and in the back of my mind there was a resistance to doing it again.
EIL: Are you worried that grief will overtake you at this event, or do you feel the passage of time together with the joy of the summer of 2014—your daughter’s marriage—will help you through?
Basel Al-Aswad: Yes, maybe unconsciously I’ve been worried about reigniting these sad feelings and painful memories. After Mandy’s wedding and the joy of that celebration with all my family and remembering Chris and Roz (their mom) at the occasion I felt ready and even compelled to host it one last time. I don’t know why…..
EIL: What do you plan to do and say this year with the doctors you are mentoring?
Basel Al-Aswad: Most of the current residents were not there four years ago, but a few know about it and my son’s death. I am going to have a great Middle Eastern spread from a top notch restaurant, have a good orthopedic discussion, but also say a few words about Chris, and, considering they are close to his age, how I feel a bit of him in every one of them… not sure what will come up? This mentoring meeting will definitely be in his memory.
EIL: How has being a father made you a good mentor for young doctors?
Basel Al-Aswad: I believe it has helped me a lot to understand and connect to them from my experiences with my children and all the trials and tribulations that are associated with parenthood (especially the challenging ones).
EIL: How has being a father to Chris, in particular, made you a good mentor?
Basel Al-Aswad: My relationship to Chris was wonderful and intimate at times and rocky and difficult at others, but we always communicated and talked to each other even when we disagreed. We went through our highs and lows. We were also honest with each other. All of that helped in being a good and effective mentor. I also recognized that just because I am older and more experienced I was not always right.
EIL: You’ve confessed to feeling a bit nervous as the event approaches. What are your fears and hopes as you come up on your mentoring evening this August?
Basel: I just want it to go well, to be a good host, have a good turnout, and hope they will get to know a little about my son and EIL.
EIL: How did it go, Basel?
Basel Al-Aswad: Very well, there were about fifteen residents and three attending physicians. Good orthopedic discussions, great food, and nice relaxed social atmosphere. Weather was good and they enjoyed the views and going out on balcony. All appreciated being invited to a home.
EIL: How did the young doctors respond to the story of your son?
Basel Al-Aswad: They were very respectful, engaged, attentive listeners. A few of them were there four years ago, and several others knew of my loss beforehand.
EIL: Did you discuss the idea of mentoring itself, and do the doctors indeed feel mentored by you?
Basel Al-Aswad: I gave a short speech, welcoming all, about how I enjoyed going to my attending homes when I was in training many years ago and then mentioned the last time we had Journal Club at my place, the day my son died. I spoke briefly about my relationship to my son, its highs and lows. I pointed out that most were close to my son’s age and how in spite of the difference between our generations we respected and learned from each other. I spoke about his talents and of course Escape Into Life, which he founded. I encouraged them to check it out and gave them his business cards (Free Yourself , escapeintolife.com), and I gave out about seven EIL T-shirts. That was it, and they seemed to be receptive.
EIL: Since you were feeling a bit anxious in advance, did you have some help at hand for practical and moral support?
Basel Al-Aswad: Yes! Both Souad, my aunt, and Kavita, my companion, helped a lot with food, cleaning, taking pictures, etc., so I could be free to be with my guests. I was very apprehensive, especially in regard to the food—I take my parties seriously—as well as the emotional aspect, memories…. In some way I felt Chris’s presence and support.
EIL: Did anything surprise you about the evening?
Basel Al-Aswad: Not really, except that it went so well it was foolish of me to worry about it. Well, it was nice to hear compliments about my place (I like it, too), and I also enjoyed showing some of Mandy’s wedding pictures.
EIL: What is your advice for anyone who wants to be a good mentor?
Basel Al-Aswad: Be yourself, be an example, and don’t try too hard. Be open to your own weaknesses, and remember the mentee has to want to be mentored. You have to enjoy giving of yourself and sharing your experiences and not do it for your own ego.
EIL: Thank you, Basel. We’ll look forward to more of your mentoring here at EIL in future Via Basel posts.