On February 24, 2014 Dr. Robert C. Moellering, Jr. passed away. And then the class emails and Facebook comments flew. We couldn’t believe it. We were all saddened. We had such great memories of him. We knew him so well. And he us! Every one of us. Dr. Moellering was the physician-in-chief and chair of the Department of Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center when we were there. But no, we weren’t all fellows in Infectious Disease, a handful of people a year, whom this renowned infectious disease researcher could easily know and mentor. And he did know them and mentor them, as I gathered from the Facebook posts and comments. We weren’t junior faculty when he was there, or in any other way part of a small group of people he might have taken a special interest in. What was incredible was that we were part of a huge group of people. There were about a hundred and fifty of us (about fifty per year for each of the three years of Internal Medicine Residency) and Dr. Moellering knew each of us. Not because he had memorized the class lists or was some kind of name savant, mind you. But because he came to our resident reports, saw us present cases to each other, and participated in Medicine Grand Rounds. He took an active interest in us as physicians and as people.
Our residency program was an amazing place to learn, and not the least because of the high standards set by everyone there. Entering internship, we were immediately assailed with how little medicine we knew, even though we were now officially doctors. We suffered from impostor syndrome. We saw the M.D. after our names as a cruel joke, while we struggled to learn how to actually take care of patients. We heard our residents and fellow trainees rattle off acronyms of studies, cite the latest evidence, and take careful histories eliciting key details in a few minutes by knowing what to ask. But even in a place full of exceptional, bright, motivated role models, Dr. Moellering stood a head above.
He came to resident report, he asked questions, and he had answers, yet he was as humble as he was insightful. At presentations he didn’t ask questions that you clearly hadn’t thought to ask the patient just to make you feel inadequate. He asked thoughtful questions that helped us frame the presentation and more clearly see the diagnosis. He offered his thought process generously, helping us think through the complexities of patients and the various possibilities. But even in this, he wasn’t at the center of the room holding court. The teachers I remember were our chief residents, and Dr. Moellering offered a few insightful comments or questions, not a domination of resident report for his own purpose.
Dr. Moellering was inspiring not only because he was a giant in Infectious Disease and had his own active research program, not only because he was an able administrator, and a brilliant clinician and educator, but because he was all those things and still came to resident report and showed us, more than anyone could tell us, that these things were possible today. Not in some distant era of bygone days remembering previous achievements, but he had current knowledge and he inspired us to try harder, to be kinder, to read more, and to be more patient. For who is busier than the Chief-of-Medicine at a Harvard Hospital, and yet he made the time for us. All of us.
He wasn’t all business either. Dr. Moellering and his wife hosted a party at their house for all the housestaff once a year. In fact, the first party my now-husband and I went to as a couple, was at Dr. Moellering’s house. They had an oyster bar that was a special treat. But Dr. Moellering and his wife didn’t just host one party. He hosted two. The hospital never sleeps, and rather than figure that a few residents would miss out, but and make it the following year, Dr. Moellering held two parties!
“I.. was struck at how I knew he was a great man, and he made me feel smart and special, with potential to be a great clinician, but that everyone else reported a personal experience similar to mine,” a friend wrote. “It was so easy to feel put down and unworthy during the rigors of training, but knowing someone of his stature, a paragon of medical greatness… felt we were worthy. It really carried and inspired us all.”
Dr. Moellering was truly an inspiration and we are all deeply saddened by his passing.
Oh, and he wasn’t a half bad tennis player either!