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- Anthony N. DeMaria, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology⁎ ()
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Dr. Anthony N. DeMaria, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 3655 Nobel Drive, Suite 630, San Diego, California 92112
It is summertime again, and the distractions are enormous. As is true for many of us, I usually consider this the season to catch up. However, things seem to have fallen further back than usual. So this Editor's Page will be brief, which is good for both the writer and the reader.
Two events caught my attention recently and prompted this essay. Walter Cronkite passed away this month after a very long and distinguished career. In addition, July 20 marked the 40th anniversary of the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on the moon. Cronkite, of course, was a public figure for many years both as a news correspondent and as the anchor reporter of nightly television news. He was the source of information for the American public during the Vietnam War, and was famously the first to inform most of the nation that President John Kennedy was dead. He was reportedly the most trusted man in America for many years. The achievement of man walking on the moon speaks for itself. The courage and ability of the astronauts, however, particularly captured the imagination and admiration of the country. They were hailed as heroes, and were granted a special respect for their accomplishments.
Both Cronkite's career and the astronauts' feat of walking on the moon were recalled with abundant admiration and given the designation of “greatness.” There can be no question that these individuals and their achievements were enormous. However, it did get me thinking about exactly what constitutes greatness, and how one achieves it.
Webster's dictionary does not give a definition for greatness. It is said to be a derivative of the word great, and presumably can be used as a noun to describe the characteristics exhibited by someone or something that possesses this quality. In terms of the word great, the definition that most seemed to reflect the quality being described was “remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness” (1). While everyone would agree that Walter Cronkite and the astronauts certainly fulfill these criteria, it seems to me that a bit more is required to earn the description of greatness.
It is my impression that greatness implies a uniqueness of achievement and one that affects a very large group of people. During my lifetime there have been many gifted correspondents, such as Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Tom Brokaw, but none who have attained the stature of Walter Cronkite. He was unique in regard to the length of his career, but particularly in the degree with which he connected with his audience and the degree to which he earned their trust. The late Tim Russert seemed to have this same quality, and perhaps this explains the tributes he received upon his death. The astronauts are, of course, unique in being part of a very small group volunteering for, qualifying for, and participating in space travel. In addition, the activities of both Cronkite and the astronauts had exposure to the entire country, and even the world. Both parties were familiar to and affected the lives of millions of individuals.
One could argue that the word remarkable includes the concepts of uniqueness and widespread influence. However, I believe that there are many individuals who perform acts that are remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness, but upon whom the designation of greatness is not bestowed. Such individuals are spread throughout many strata of society. However, in my view they all share the characteristics that their accomplishments are also achieved by others and that they affect a relatively small number of people.
I believe that we physicians fall into this category. As a group, we certainly strive to do great things. Like the astronauts, we have competed to assume an enormous task, being responsible for someone's life and health. Like Cronkite, we have been granted the trust and privilege to do so by our patients. By practicing medicine effectively we can have a huge effect upon our patients, sometimes extending to the point of saving their lives. We often do things that are of significant magnitude, degree, or effectiveness. Nevertheless, the designation of greatness is not usually bestowed upon us. In my view this is largely due to the fact that our accomplishments are fairly universal among the profession and that each of us affects the lives of a relatively small number of individuals. Although one of us occasionally reaches the threshold of uniqueness and widespread effect, we are usually confined to doing the same great things as our colleagues for a limited group of patients. While many individuals might celebrate the greatness of their own physician, it is unlikely that society will do so.
It is easy to see why Cronkite and the astronauts have been granted the mantle of greatness. Despite the obvious self interest, it is not my purpose to argue that all physicians warrant this designation. Rather, I think we are part of a large cadre in society that does great things. I think we sometimes forget this, as do others. The sacred responsibility we shoulder for someone's health makes it all the more unconscionable when one of our colleagues does not share in the effort to be excellent. Perhaps we need to establish gradations of greatness. The highest category, true greatness, would be reserved for those performing extraordinary feats that affect massive numbers of individuals. However, a second level, near greatness, would be bestowed upon those performing tasks of significant magnitude, degree, or effectiveness upon a limited group of people. In this way the important role of physicians and others in society who function within the spectrum of greatness could be recognized.
- American College of Cardiology Foundation