Lessons on mentorship

Lessons on mentorship

This week, the medical profession suffered a monumental loss in the name of Professor Saidi Hassan

Despite the fact that his funeral took place within 24 hours as his religion requires, Prof Saidi will be mourned for a very long time.

I met Prof Saidi after I completed medical school, while doing my internship at the Kenyatta National Hospital. He was one of the consultant surgeons in my surgical rotation and despite our interaction lasting only six weeks, he left a lifetime impression.

Many other colleagues were far luckier than I. Prof Saidi taught them anatomy, a cornerstone course in medicine, in their first year of school. He later taught them surgery during their clinical rotations.


Every single person who interacted with Prof Saidi had exactly the same things to say about him. A brilliant mind with the utmost humility. He made everyone feel at ease and would demonstrate the most complex human body anatomy with such simplicity and ease that left his students awed.

At a young age, he earned his professorship, an achievement that is no mean feat in the world of medicine. He brought about such positive change in the department of anatomy in the University of Nairobi that he will forever be remembered for.

At a personal level, he inspired hundreds of his students to be better doctors, researchers and teachers through mentorship. He never hesitated to take calls from his resident doctors who consulted on patients even when he was not on call.

Prof Saidi spent the last eight years of his life battling a rare cancer that had no cure. By the time of diagnosis, he was at the point of no return. Instead of feeling sorry for himself and seeking sympathy, he took the high road. He made peace with the fact that death was imminent and he only had a few years left.

In eight years, he became a professor, headed the department of anatomy, did research and published numerous papers to his credit, mentored hundreds of young doctors and treated thousands of patients.

At a personal level, he secured the future of his family, knowing he would not be around long enough to see his babies grow to manhood. Over and above his immediate family, he contributed greatly towards the community that raised him, giving something back when most of us wouldn’t even think to. He supported the Nubian University Students’ Organisation, Madrasatul Falaah Society and the Haiba Foundation in Kibra.

It is hard to imagine that one soul could achieve so much is such a short time and yet the Kenyan public that he served so diligently had never heard of him. It is a wonder that he had never been awarded a presidential recognition for such selfless service. This must make us re-look at our societal values and what we hold as important.


In the field of medicine, mentorship is such an integral part of the profession. It is clearly upheld in the Hippocratic Oath, just to emphasise how critical it is. Beyond the undergraduate degree level, continued learning is more focused on apprenticeship, acquiring skills beyond the books, by observing your seniors and learning the tricks of the profession.

But aside from acquiring knowledge from books and skills from practising under supervision for years, the one thing that lasts a lifetime is mentorship.

We learn how to conduct ourselves in the profession through mentorship, to uphold ethics and dignity from those gone before us and to practise humility in the care of our patients by reaching out in consultation with our colleagues.

It therefore amazes me when a patient concludes that their doctor is unqualified because they dared to pick up the phone and consult a colleague before writing that prescription. Or that they called in another doctor to review the patient before coming to a conclusion. In medicine, learning never stops.

Doctors will even hold conferences to discuss special cases that require more attention. That is being a good doctor.


The danger in private practice especially where doctors do not belong to a structured setting, is that it is easy for a doctor to get caught up in their world and miss out on the rapid advances in medicine. It is incumbent upon them to make an effort to interact with others so as to keep abreast on the new developments. But aside from that, in moments when a doctor is worried about their patient and they do not feel too confident, knowing that there is a mentor a phone call away to consult with makes all the difference.

Doctors are also human. They face the same challenges as other people. They suffer from depression, broken families, addictions, financial challenges, parental inadequacies, ill health and death. Coupled with the very demanding job they do, it is easy to hit breaking point. Current research shows alarmingly high evidence of suicide among doctors the world over. Strong support systems are necessary to ensure they scale these heights with ease and remain productive and safe to their patients.

Currently in Kenya, the regulatory body for doctors, The Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board has put in place a robust “Fitness to Practice” committee to support doctors in need. The Kenya Medical Association has also set up a support system to reach out to doctors countrywide who are in need of support.

It costs a lot to train a doctor. This should motivate us to do all that is possible to keep the doctor fit to serve. Mentorship does not cost much. It does not take away from the mentor, it is a two-way enrichment for both parties. I do not know who Prof Saidi looked up to when he needed a shoulder to lean on professionally but he has taught all of us something that we should aspire to be.

In his honour, the least we could do as colleagues in the profession is to step into his shoes in our own small ways and mentor those who come after us.