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Teacher of the Year Award for Brian Carlsen, M.D. — ‘late bloomer’ in full bloom

Brian Carlsen, M.D. (HAND ’08), Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Division of Hand Surgery in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, came to Mayo Clinic for a hand surgery fellowship in 2007, intending to return to the Pacific Northwest where he’s from. “I saw how patients were cared for at Mayo and said yes to staying,” he says. “There’s something different about Mayo Clinic in terms of the dedication to patient care. That the patient comes first isn’t just a marketing statement; everyone buys into it. Mayo Clinic is a utopia for doctors.”

Given the volume and nature of comments submitted by trainees who nominated Dr. Carlsen for his first Teacher of the Year Award, training with him is a utopia. The sentiments could not be more effusive, and his humility about the award could not be more genuine.

“In addition to teaching trainees how to become excellent surgeons, I teach them the importance of taking care of themselves.”

Brian Carlsen, M.D., receives a Teacher of the Year award from resident Krishna Vyas, M.D., Ph.D. (PLS ’22).

What’s your teaching style?

My style is practical, common-sense and patient-directed. I emphasize things not taught in textbooks. I try to get trainees to think through problems and solutions versus recite facts. Our patients come in with complaints and concerns we have to sort through, so I want to know how much our residents can think and apply knowledge.

In addition to teaching trainees how to become excellent surgeons, I teach them the importance of taking care of themselves. To be healthy, I eat healthy food, practice good mental and physical habits, exercise and meditate every day. I talk to residents about these things and how much they’ve helped me.

What’s most rewarding about teaching?

I get to see people come from medical school, full of energy, enthusiasm and brilliance, and help shape them into physicians who can care for their fellow humans. What could be better than that?

It’s rewarding to see students who have been on my service for a while doing things as well as I could.

What’s most challenging about teaching?

We all have busy lives. It can be challenging to get everything done that needs to get done day to day and make sure I make teachable moments a priority.

How do you know when you’ve done a good job teaching?

Sometimes residents and fellows come to me and ask why we’re approaching a case a particular way instead of another way. I feel as if I’ve done a good job and taught them well when they suggest a good option.

My only goal in teaching is to help them be the best surgeons they can be — skilled and comfortable in that role.

Who are your teaching role models?

I had 10 years of residency in general surgery, plastic surgery and hand surgery, so I’ve had many great teachers.

I learn by observing and doing versus reading about things — interactive instead of didactic. I’ve learned more by watching physicians interact with patients or guide me through an operation. My great role models showed me how to think through problems and articulated their thinking. I learned from watching how they handled patients and managed challenges in the OR.

How do you address students who are struggling?

I recognize that my trainees are here because they want to be surgeons. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It can feel arrogant to point out others’ weaknesses when we all have them, but it would be unethical to ignore weaknesses in medical training because patients’ lives and well-being are on the line. I do it with compassion.

Did you struggle as a student?

Definitely. I wasn’t a good high school student. I was absorbed by things that interested me, such as sports. Academics weren’t emphasized in my family. I went to junior college for two years to play basketball. I was a late bloomer and wasn’t ready for a university. In junior college, I took a biology course and fell in love with it. A whole new world opened up for me. I also spent a summer caring for a young man with cerebral palsy and learned that I could care for people.

In medical training, I had challenges learning some skills, including time management. The challenges I’ve had have made me appreciate what I have.

Nobody led me toward medicine or pressured me into it. I found it on my own.

Residents describe you as a strong advocate for them. Tell us about that.

I remember what it’s like to be a resident. They have a tough job. They’re like the soldiers on the front line — the face to patients and nurses and other staff. Residents are our eyes and ears everywhere, and they often have to deliver not-so-good news. People are reluctant to challenge a consultant but not a resident. There can be a tendency to blame residents for difficult situations. I try to understand these situations and defend our residents when necessary.

How does it feel to receive a Teacher of the Year award?

I was very surprised by the award. I don’t think of myself as a great teacher; I always feel like I can do better. It’s humbling, and the award means a lot to me. It’s also energizing and makes me want to work even harder to be an effective teacher.


Trainee comments

  • “Dr. Carlsen clearly believes education to be an extension of patient care, realizing that when he puts down the scalpel once and for all, it is the next generation of surgeons who will pick it back up and care for patients using the principles he taught them. He’s the first person I think of when I envision the surgeon I hope to become one day. He’s the reason I fell in love with hand surgery. Words cannot adequately express how deserving he is of the Teacher of the Year Award.”
  • “Dr. Carlsen is an excellent teacher. His surgical skills and clinical expertise are enviable. His lessons in anatomy and function are always insightful. He teaches residents how to take care of the patient and how to take care of ourselves. We always come out of his rotations better than we came in.”
  • “Dr. Carlsen is a phenomenal teacher. Hand surgery can be difficult to understand and master. He takes time to teach all components, from physical exam to differential diagnosis and treatment. In the OR, he allows residents to progress in a step-wise fashion for each surgery.”
  • “He has an incredible ability to assess an individual’s level of understanding, then formulate a curriculum — often mid-operation — that challenges the individual to think critically and expand his or her knowledge base. His detail-oriented approach ensures that his students appreciate the subtle but crucial intricacies of disease and their treatments. He encourages a level of mastery behind mere regurgitation of textbook definitions.”
  • “Dr. Carlsen is one of the most supportive faculty. He’s extremely devoted to student and resident education and takes a genuine interest in us — professionally and personally. He instills in us the value of putting the needs of the patient first.”
  • “He’s an extremely caring person, amazing human and phenomenal surgeon. Dr. Carlsen truly cares about us and invests in making us better residents. I respect and admire his commitment.”

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