Camaraderie and Compassion

“Many of the things I took away from Vanderbilt are not found in a textbook of differentials and dispositions, such as the principle exemplified by John Sergent that you take your work very seriously but yourself not so much,” says Dr. Vansant.

This is evident in the humor shared by the sources interviewed for this article. When asked about Dr. Sergent’s talents as a teacher and mentor, Joseph W. Huston, III, MD, assistant professor, rheumatology and immunology, whom Dr. Sergent also inspired to join the field, joked, “We’ve had to trim off and refine some of his peculiar attributes, such as his memory for names. He has an incredible memory for everybody. It’s almost pathologic!” Dr. Huston recalls attending a welcoming party for incoming house staff at Dr. Sergent’s home. “You arrive at the house and there are 60 to 80 incoming house staff, and he knows every one of their names, their spouses’ and children’s names—all from studying their files and CVs.”

Drs. Huston, Sergent, and others have remained a tight-knit group and are also members of a group that meets socially, calling themselves WEEDS—the Wednesday Evening Eating and Drinking Society.

Although Dr. Sergent is perhaps best known for his teaching, he has also remained a lifelong student, taking lessons from his rheumatology patients (some of whom he’s treated for over 30 years) and patients at the end of life. He eloquently reflects on these lessons in his the op-ed column called “Healing Words,” that he’s written for The Tennessean over a 17-year period. In one of those columns, “Beth,” he chronicled how one of his medical students took comfort about her own losses from an encounter with a patient. “As teachers, we concentrate on the written curriculum but know that equally important is the unwritten or hidden curriculum. The unwritten curriculum is what we teach by our attitudes and our values. Beth reminds us that for medical students, there is yet a third curriculum, that which we learn from our patients.”3