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If you like Tenley Albright's story, you might also like:
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Susan Butcher,
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Tenley Albright in the Achievement Curriculum section:
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Tenley Albright
 
Tenley Albright
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Tenley Albright Interview (page: 4 / 5)

Olympic Gold Medal Figure Skater

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  Tenley Albright

How long was it between your final competition and your entry into medical school?

Tenley Albright: Just about right away.

What was that like for you? I mean, you were the best in the world at something, and then you were part of 130 young people entering a class. Can you tell us what went on inside you?

Tenley Albright: I was always motivated to be involved with medicine; I was fascinated. Even when I was deeply involved in figure skating competition, I just knew that what I wanted to do was be in medicine, eventually. After I had been in college at Radcliffe for three years, I felt I really wanted to move on and be in medicine and get going with it. After the Olympic championship in 1956, I applied to medical school. I remember going to the chief of neurosurgery, whom I had met, and asking if there were any requirements that you have to finish college before you apply to medical school. He said, "I thought so, but I don't know. I'll check." So, he checked, and he said, "Well, you know, it's not written down anyplace." So I applied to medical school after three years. I had seven interviews at Harvard Medical School.

There weren't many women in the classes then, and also, I don't know what they thought of a skater, or someone who had been traveling a lot. Maybe they thought it was all just fun, and I couldn't settle down, but I did start medical school. September 1 came, and all of a sudden there I was with everyone else. There were 135 or 40 of us in the class, and five of us were women. And everything was new. I had taken everything but science. Of course I had taken the premedical school requirements, but I thought, "iIf I'm going to be studying medicine, I'd better learn everything I can about other things first."

Tenley Albright Interview Photo
So when I started medical school, I found myself in the midst of top people from all over the country who had concentrated in all aspects of science. Some of my classmates had taught comparative anatomy. Some of them had done a number of other things before they even started medical school. So once again, I felt like a real beginner. And I'll never forget those first few months. I read all of the references listed on the back of our outline that had to do with human diseases, and suddenly realized that was supposed to be dessert. I was supposed to be paying attention to all of those dry, uninteresting things that we were supposed to study in those first few months. It was a whole new world. A world I loved, but I found myself very anxious to get to working with patients. And it took me a while to understand that we weren't going to just start right in there. So it was quite a shock, and exciting, and a challenge again. But as we all know, there are hard knocks in all of those challenges, and it's not always bruises from falling down on the ice.

Was there ever a time when you were uncertain as to your destiny as a physician?

Tenley Albright: I can remember very clearly after having heard for years about girls going to medical school and taking a place from some deserving man. I can remember after our first exams, that first fall, thinking, where is that person whose place I am taking? And does he want it now? But those were very fleeting thoughts.

I can remember sitting with about six of my classmates, six of the young men at lunch one time, and I said, "Oh, my Gosh! I've just gotten a pink slip on our quiz! What am I going to do?" And they commiserated with me. And it wasn't until a year later that I found out that three others at that same table had gotten those pink slips too.

When you are in the operating room, no matter how spectacular your results, nobody hums the Barcarole for you. Aside from the attention, is there a difference in the satisfaction that you get from your two major areas of accomplishment? Or are they similar?

Tenley Albright Interview Photo
Tenley Albright: They are similar in inner feelings. In surgery we have something we call "surgical conscience." Not only must you prepare the patient, prepare your operating team, and be ready for whatever you may find, but also, only you know if you've done everything you can to make it as successful as you possibly can. And if you have been creative and you have prepared yourself the best you can in every way, done everything you can for the comfort, the recovery, the cure of the patient, and you can look to yourself, and say, "I know," that's a tremendous satisfaction. No words of congratulation or praise can ever match that feeling, when you know you've been able to do something for an individual that will add to their life, or even in a small, small way make them more comfortable.

Those are the satisfactions of understanding the effects of your work. What is the surgical mind like? How does it feel as the mind works and you're doing complex surgery?

Tenley Albright: Part of it is a mind which involves feeling: "I need to address this now." Ultimately, the decision is mine. I must make it the very, very best I can, and it's up to me to see that I do. Oftentimes, people think that surgeons are cold, that they don't talk to patients. I am always shocked when I hear that. I can remember one night in the emergency ward when the ambulance came, and we didn't know what we were going to see when the doors of the ambulance opened. What we did see was a very beautiful 16 year-old girl who had been in a horrible automobile accident, and she was unconscious, bones were sticking out of both legs. The scalp flap was off, and blood all over and she was in shock. And obviously, there wasn't any time to say, "What shall I do first?"

Immediately, you just have to put things in motion and handle things -- the most acute first: to be sure she was breathing, stop the bleeding, get intravenous in, get the blood pressure back, then splint her legs and so on. And as I was doing that and we got the blood pressure back on her, I was told that her parents had come and could I come out and speak to them. And when I saw that she was stable enough for me to turn away from the stretcher momentarily, I did go and speak to her parents. And as I did, I suddenly felt overwhelmed.


My stomach flipped, I felt nauseated. I felt weak, because of the horror of what I had just seen and had to take care of. But I couldn't let myself feel that way until it was all right to. And that's part of the surgical mind too, addressing what you need to, and you know you can do, and postponing how you feel about it, thinking only of the patient and what you need to do.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


You are a precision performer, and there is nothing in the world that needs to be more precise than surgery. Could you talk a little bit about concentration and awareness of concentration? As you were treating this girl, you were probably not aware of how you were working. Could you talk a little bit about situations where you are not even aware of concentration because you are concentrating so intently? Both in terms of your career as a performer and as a surgeon.

Tenley Albright: There is a very interesting balance, because sometimes when we are intensely concentrating, we also need to have our other antenna up. Maybe what we are talking about is training ourselves to focus on what we need to. Sometimes that seems as if we are blocking out other things, but there is still an awareness of them. I don't know how really to explain that. But certainly you do that in taking off on a double axel. You have to concentrate on what you are doing, but obviously, if somebody is coming down the ice about to bump into you, you've got to be aware of that. But not so much that you don't think of exactly what you are doing, or you will fall flat on the jump itself.

Tenley Albright Interview Photo
In surgery, you have to think of exactly what you are doing when the scalpel is in your hand, and your focus is exactly on what it is you are doing. If you aren't concentrating, and you are not placing that tiny, tiny incision in just the proper point in the common duct, you could be in real trouble, and the patient too. And you can't allow yourself not to concentrate. But you also have to be aware, so that if something is happening in any other part of the operating field, you sense that too, because you mustn't ignore that while you are concentrating on this thing. It's a very, very interesting balance of concentrating and awareness. And our minds are capable of phenomenal things. Perhaps that's something we should study more and find out about more. Most great people -- athletes, scientists, Nobel Prize winners, movie producers -- know that they've had to concentrate but allow their minds to think in many areas at once. If they didn't, while they were working to solve something, they wouldn't be able to think of alternative solutions. It's exciting.

Is there anything else that you'd like to say about medicine?

Tenley Albright: I'd like to talk about the range in medicine. If you've ever thought about medicine as an interest to pursue for the rest of your life, I'd like to encourage you. Perhaps this is just my own point of view, but I can't imagine any other field that has as many different areas within it. Right now, of course, there are tremendous, tremendous biotechnology advances. There are advances over when I went to medical school of the micro amounts of substances in the system that can be measured. I'm thinking of magnifying something 50,000 times, thinking of splicing a gene. There are so many areas. We all think of the satisfaction of being able to help another human being in a large way, or a small way, in dealing with family problems, in healing a wound, or recovering from an illness, that's a tremendous satisfaction. But there are so many different areas

If you think you are interested in what makes human beings tick, or how bodies work, go ahead and explore it. What's telling us to breathe? I am not having to tell my heart to pump right now, and the heart doesn't get tired. It rests between beats. We don't have to think of things like: can you swallow standing on your head?

Can you drink a glass of water when you are standing on your head? You can! Do you swallow up or swallow down?

Tenley Albright: Can you swallow against gravity? You can. We don't stop to think about the amazing parts of the human body. Or of the human mind. If anything about life interests you, if you think you are interested in medicine, go ahead and explore it. You can be in any aspect of it at all, and there are tremendous ones. That's my own point of view, but I'm sure some of you will share it.

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This page last revised on Feb 06, 2008 15:45 EDT
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