7 Traits of a “Highly Effective” Doctor

I am one of those guys who can say that his father was his hero. My physician-dad set a fine example—both as a man and a doctor. A man of few words, you had to watch his actions to learn his ways.

“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”

—Peter Drucker

I am one of those guys who can say that his father was his hero. My physician-dad set a fine example—both as a man and a doctor. As a boy I wanted to be with him always. And while I knew well his flaws, I continue to admire his life.

There was much to be proud of. For his time and place, he was one of the most highly-trained, respected, and successful physicians. A man of few words, you had to watch his actions to learn his ways:

1. Discipline—My dad’s number one instruction to all was to be a “disciplined person.” It was the first feature of success—for any worthy endeavor. “You must have discipline if you are to get what you want in life, Gregory,” he told me time and time again. And although he was someone who liked to stop and smell the flowers along the way, I give him very good marks in the discipline living department.

The selection of medicine as a career surely calls for a large degree of control in order to be accomplished, but I saw how dad incorporated discipline into other walks of his life. I might add that he didn’t have total success in passing this trait down to his eight children. But he was right about its necessity for achievement.

2. Charity—No one ever helped me more in my life than my father. In addition to healing thousands of patients through the years, he wrote checks for family, vouched for friends, encouraged colleagues, and supported his community.

Quickly and quietly, he saw things in people. Many times I saw situations where he had more faith and confidence in others then they had in themselves. He had that rare talent to make others feel better about themselves—with just a few words. I’m not sure if he learned this in med school, but it was a fabulous trait for a doctor to have.

3. Sacrifice—All of us knew that dad’s career came first. When the home phone rang most times, the family knew it was the hospital calling, and off dad would go. Sometimes he may have grumbled on the way out but out he went. Dad was a keen diagnostician, one of the best of his day, so other doctors and nurses sought his time and opinion.

A common question for the children of doctors is, “How come you didn’t become a doctor?”—at least among my siblings who never got the calling. The answer? We never saw the man. He left us on Christmas. He left us on Thanksgiving. He left us on July 4th. We saw medicine take him from so many birthdays, parties, and dinners. It took him away from us. The guy sacrificed—and so did we.

4. Dedication—I was young when I learned my dad wasn’t an ordinary person. My family was at a seashore amusement pier one summer night when a park employee was seriously injured in the machinery of a ride. The man was bleeding profusely and as a crowd gathered and confusion set in, my father stepped forward and calmed the situation. He evaluated the situation medically, and worked to control the bleeding until emergency personnel arrived (the man recovered, dad later learned).

One of my most vivid memories of that night was seeing my dad’s blood-covered hands after his first aid efforts. Being confused—although I noticed that no one else came forward to help—I asked my mom what happened. And she said something I never forgot: “it’s your father’s job to help people.” Doctors have a duty, dad would tell me.

5. Adventure—A proud member of “America’s Greatest Generation,” my father served in World War II as a medical officer on a US Navy warship—all by age 25. Varied interests consumed him. He was a voracious reader, dedicated horseman and sailor, photographer, champion college diver and gymnast, collector of Native American culture, aspiring poet, and fan of sports, ballet, and music.

He was an enthusiastic and educated golfer. He traveled the world to play the best courses, met links legends—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Ben Hogan—in person, posted his only two holes-in-one after his 75th birthday, and lived to play golf with all of his grandsons.

6. Intelligence—Trained in the nation’s top institutions (St. Vincent’s, King’s County hospitals in NYC and at the Boston City Hospital), he learned under the renowned and brilliant professor of medicine, Dr. William Dock. Indeed, my dad became something of a cardiology pioneer at his own hospital on the Jersey Shore.

Together with his brother-in-law, Dr. George A. Sheehan, Jr. he practiced medicine for 25 years. Doc Sheehan & Doc Kelly were well known for their skill in diagnosing and treating patients and their ability to suitably provide for two large families (including their wives and 20 children).

7. Endurance—My dad was a very busy 39-year-old doctor and father of five when he was stricken with a virus that rendered him immobile from the waist down. Neither he nor his doctors were ever able to determine the cause, but dad knew he had to get on his feet and back to work.

“I’m a doctor with a wife and five kids—I’m walking again,” was his rally call. He summoned the fortitude. Employing a vigorous exercise program, help from dear friends who took him on his rounds, and a wife who loved him and respected his career, he succeeded. Good thing. He’d go on to have three more children, including me.