Teacher of the Year for Laura Raffals, M.D. — ‘the biggest honor of my career’

Laura Raffals, M.D. (GI ’11), Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in the Department of Medicine, completed her residency and fellowship in Chicago, where her husband is from, and thought they’d remain there forever. She met Gregory Gores, M.D. (I ’83, GI ’86), Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology and executive dean for Research at Mayo Clinic, at a conference in Japan and her career trajectory changed forever.

“He asked if I was interested in interviewing at Mayo Clinic, and I did it out of curiosity,” she says. “Day one I realized Mayo provided a unique career opportunity. Everyone was genuinely nice and talented.” She convinced her husband to uproot and give Rochester three years.

Fast forward eight years, and Dr. Raffals is the first woman in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Mayo Clinic to receive the Teacher of the Year award from the Mayo Fellows’ Association. She calls it the biggest honor of her career.

“I get to help set trainees up in careers they love.”

Laura Raffals, M.D., receives a Teacher of the Year award from resident Kevin Quinn, M.D. (I ’17, GI ’20).

What’s your teaching style?

My teaching style has evolved over time. I try to talk less and listen more. I tend to like to talk, so that’s a challenge!

The learning environment is important. I try to make sure I’m approachable and always available to my trainees. I tell them I’m available 24/7, which goes a long way. It’s rare that they call me at an odd time, but being available means a lot.

I have fun teaching and let the trainees shine. I try to set them up to shine in front of the patient and their colleagues. It boosts their confidence and motivates them to do a better job.

I try to lead by example. You’re always on stage at work when you teach — not just with patients but also with trainees. The trainees observe everything — how I act, how I behave and how I interact with colleagues — and model the behaviors I display. I remember that they’re always paying attention to my good and bad habits.

What’s most rewarding about teaching?

Teaching is fun and an antidote to burnout. It keeps me on my toes. Touching future generations of physicians has a ripple effect and influences how they will train future trainees and those who come after them. That’s humbling and motivating. I get to help set trainees up in careers they love. If you love your career, you will do a better job of taking care of patients. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of a career in academic medicine.

I love hearing from past graduates, who tell me how they use what I taught them. Seeing them succeed and knowing I played a part in their success is rewarding.

A past mentee at Louisiana State University was a speaker at a conference with my past mentor. I’m proud of this mentee – she absorbed everything like a sponge and has done very well. She gave a talk at this conference on an topic I also have spoken on many times. My mentor was there, and he said he felt proud listening to her talk. Why? Because he realized she was using the analogies and disease concepts that he’d taught me! He approached her after her talk and asked who her mentor was. She said, “Laura Raffals,” and my mentor said, “I knew it!” It was a proud moment in his career, hearing his message passed down from generation to generation.

What’s most challenging about teaching?

It’s challenging when a learner isn’t engaged or doesn’t seem to care.

Our residents and fellows are very busy and are pulled in many directions. When a learner isn’t engaged, I try to find out how to relate to them and relate them to the concepts we’re learning. I ask a lot of questions to get to know them better. If they’re pursuing anesthesiology, for example, I try to relate the material to their area of interest. I make a big effort to figure out what excites them.

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

You don’t always know. Doing a good job isn’t about being popular. As program director, I sometimes have to be the bad guy. When trainees are happy and successful and get great opportunities, I feel as if I’ve done a good job.

Did you ever struggle in training?

I came from a small town in Indiana and didn’t go to an Ivy League school or have a pedigree as impressive as some of my colleauges, so I had imposter syndrome. I felt I had to prove myself. I threw myself into my training to prove I belonged. I made sure I was intern of the year and chief resident. I tried to get grants and was always trying to achieve and impress whoever I worked for. I worked hard for the approval of others. I had a hard time letting go of that, but I eventually learned that what mattered more than anything else was my own satisfaction and what made me happy. What matters is how I feel about the work I do.

How do you handle struggling students?

That’s the greatest challenge of a program director. It’s important that my fellows trust me and I strive to build their trust from day one. You build trust by getting to know your trainees and letting them know if you are concerned. It’s important o me that my fellows know I’m a safe place, and I’m here to help them without judgment.

We all have shortcomings. I try to help the learner come up with a game plan to turn their challenges into their strengths. It’s rewarding to help them through a challenge and get to a point where it’s no longer a struggle for them but, rather, a tool to propel them ahead. We’re all works in progress. What matters is how you perform today, not how you performed in the past.

Most commonly, trainees are struggling with the demands of the job. They can usually handle it if things outside of work are going OK. However, if things are happening in their personal life, they can start to affect work. There will always be periods of stress. We need to make sure to develop good self-care habits.

Who are your teaching role models?

I’ve picked up aspects of teaching from various mentors — John Poterucha, M.D. (I ’89, GI ’92), Patrick Kamath, M.D. (GI ’92), and Conor Loftus, M.D. (I ’01, GI ’04) — all in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Students remarked on your emphasis on wellness and balance. Talk about that.

Some of my mentors expected us to be available 24/7 including Sunday mornings. It seemed like it was a test of our commitment to our career. I think that’s an unhealthy way to mentor. We realize burnout is prevalent among physicians, and we need to take better care of ourselves and each other. I try to teach this by leading by example. I spend time with my family, exercise and encourage trainees to do the same.

Good work-life balance is incredibly important to millennials and not appreciated as much by previous generations.

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

It’s possibly the biggest honor in my career. It means more to me than any other award I’ve received.

I care about our fellows. The current group is amazing. To be nominated by them is a true honor. It feels great to be recognized.

When you get an award, it motivates you because being rewarded for something you care about is meaningful. It reminds me why I do what I do and love — teaching future generations of physicians.

How does it feel to be the first woman in your division to receive the award?

GI has always been a male-dominated field, but it’s a phenomenal field for women. We have incredible people in our division. The men who came before me are very deserving and are great educators. It feels great to be among them. I hope my receiving the award brings attention to the other great women educators in the division.

It feels great to bring recognition to women and lift them up. It’s a great honor, and I look forward to other women in gastroenterology receiving this award.

Trainee comments

  • “Dr. Raffals is a fantastic educator and mentor who cares about her trainees. Despite her busy schedule, she always makes time for her trainees to discuss clinical or other issues we have. She displays exceptional clinical knowledge and acumen and effectively translates it to her learners in a way many educators cannot.”
  • “Dr. Raffals is a phenomenal physician who role models bedside manner and dedication to patient care. She is a stellar program director and exemplary leader who cares about the direction and growth of the fellowship and strives to make sure we are pushed in the direction of our individual goals.”
  • “She is nonjudgmental and supportive and emphasizes the importance of wellness and balance to become more well-rounded clinicians and people.”
  • “Dr. Raffals listens carefully to the needs of her fellows and evaluates issues from all sides to arrive at appropriate solutions. I appreciate how she plays the role of bridge between division leadership and GI fellows. She always has our backs and advocates for us to make sure we get the best training at the best fellowship in the nation.”
  • “I can’t say enough wonderful things about Dr. Raffals. I consider myself extremely fortunate to work with and learn from her as a clinician, educator and leader.”

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