Rita Charon, MD, PhD, Takes a Hands-On Approach to Mentoring


Working behind the scenes to provide opportunity & financial help

For Rita Charon, MD, PhD, mentoring is an essential component in training doctors to be compassionate, empathetic, and effective listeners.

Dr. Charon, who earned her PhD in English at Columbia after earning her MD, is the founder of the field of narrative medicine, in which storytelling and listening are tools used by physicians to better diagnose and treat patients.

She reflected on mentoring in the latest in a series of oral histories sponsored by the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation, available at the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard.

The Importance of Mentorship

Her mentors began with her high school biology teacher. In college, her English teacher brought her into Bensalem, The Experimental College of Fordham University, where the goal was to find new ways of learning in a radically collaborative context that upended the traditional hierarchy of authority.

Staying in touch with past mentors is an inward reminder of where she has been and an outward symbol of respect.

“I never let them go,” she says. “One of them is now quite demented, but I still visit him. And he vaguely knows who I am, but I still visit him. He is as warm and loving as ever.”

As a mentor herself, she is hands on and proactive. She doesn’t stop at offering insights and advice. She helps protégés to get grants and jobs. On occasion, she has helped them financially.

One student from Uganda had just finished her master’s degree. Dr. Charon connected her with a scholarship to attend a palliative care conference:

“The woman was thrilled, absolutely thrilled, at the chance to—and she’s very interested in palliative care—at the chance of doing that and was kind of happy that I thought of her. Then, like a week before it, or five days before the conference, I get this kind of regret from the organizer of the conference, who says, ‘Sadly, she’s not able to come. She just can’t come up with her part of the tuition.’”

Intent on making certain she could attend, Dr. Charon made the payment out of her own pocket. “I made sure she was there.”

In developing narrative medicine, she looked for creative ways to make certain collaborators were adequately paid:

“I got a grant from the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) to pay some of their salary so we could sit and talk for two or three hours, two or three times a month, and together, exploring the question, how does this newfound knowledge from the humanities change practice?”

Just as she does with her mentors, Dr. Charon stays in touch with her protégés:

“I’ve got several who I’ve seen through something or other. Either they were doctors and then they said, ‘I’m thinking I want to get a PhD in English; how do I do that?’ I’m not their supervisor, but I’m standing by. These two...who were both in the English Department at Columbia after getting their MD, I was on their dissertation committees, and one of them is now at Stanford, I make sure that he gets invited to give talks. The other one, I helped him get a grant. That kind of thing. It’s in the background.”

This story is taken from the oral history of Dr. Rita Charon. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with The Archives for Women in Medicine.

Alicia Lazzaro