Business travel offers educational opportunities, expected and unexpected

July 15, 2008

Meetings and other travel commitments can keep a department chair quite busy. The necessity of their obvious function to provide idea sharing and educational opportunities is important, but also the relations and connections made with people along the way.

"Zen martini: A martini with no vermouth at all. And no gin, either."
-P.J. O'Rourke

"One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough."
-James Thurber

"Do not allow children to mix drinks. It is unseemly and they use too much vermouth."
-Steve Allen

A department chairman must often travel and represent his or her department, and this provides opportunities to interact with a lot of people. Invitations to travel for meetings, lectures, committee work, etc. can easily become excessive, and my own goal for many years has been to try to keep my travel commitments to a reasonable level, especially while I still had children at home.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but a department chairman must ensure that his or her department is thriving. The same is surely true of managing partners of large group practices. An absentee leader rarely oversees a thriving department or practice. That being said, traveling to meetings can be fun and educational. A while ago, I attended a meeting where I learned a lot, touched base with a lot of old acquaintances, and made some new friends.

Cuban food is among my favorites, and on my schedule one evening was a dinner at a Cuban restaurant. Although these meals at meetings can resemble the proverbial box of chocolates ("you never know what you're gonna get"-as Forrest Gump would say), I had very high expectations for this dinner. I knew there would be very interesting people present. I was not disappointed; neither in the food nor the company.

Upon greeting everyone in the group and shaking hands all around, we were seated and began conversing with our immediate neighbors at the table. A particular treat this evening was having very interesting but different people on either side of me, and sitting across the table was an exceptionally charming, funny, intelligent, and very famous ophthalmologist.

This individual shared that after a long day of intellectual hard work at such meetings, he likes to unwind with a special cocktail. This cocktail consists of equal parts very cold vodka and gin, garnished with a special olive. Although an olive lover, I was content to stick with the Cuban theme and nursed my overly sweetened mojito, while my companion polished off two of his special libations and ordered a third.

Smiling, relaxed, jovial and content-my companion had by this point clearly achieved his goal of a truly unwound state of being. Not surprising, it seemed to me, in that consuming this much undiluted vodka and gin in a short period would have certainly relaxed me, and my volume of distribution for ethanol is much larger than it used to be (a polite was of saying my body has more fat than when I was younger) and much larger than that of my dinner companion. His normally funny and charming demeanor became even more convivial and expansive than normal, and my companion proceeded to demonstrate his considerable prowess as a raconteur, sharing one interesting and amusing story after another. As we had many acquaintances in common, it was delightful to hear what everyone was doing, including some things they were doing that they shouldn't be.

Wine flowed freely (as it so often does) during the meal itself, and the diners continued to hydrate themselves while my dinner companion held our attention with a number of interesting research success stories.

Our part of the table also learned fascinating anecdotes about new people we did not know. We heard about people who had been put into positions for which they lacked the ability to succeed, only to crash and burn, or who had not yet run into trouble but would probably do so. We heard about who was a really great surgeon and who wasn't. There were some interesting insights into the politics of national and international ophthalmic organizations.

Listening to all the stories relayed by my very candid companion, delivered with humor and insight, made for a fascinating evening. None of the stories was in any way mean-spirited, I hasten to add, but certainly some could be considered gossip. It was like listening to the books-on-tape version of People Magazine or US Weekly.

After declining dessert (these nice dinners at meetings will definitely expand one's volume of distribution if you're not careful), I told my companion how enjoyable it had been to listen to all his stories. Rising to leave, my gracious companion replied: "Oh, I forgot to tell you that I enjoy reading your column in Ophthalmology Times. Where do you get ideas to write about?

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu