Watkins, who also lectures at Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he is associate dean, takes particular pride in “teaching by example.” As the poem on the wall of his office says, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one.” He understands that what he does is just as important as what he says. “If I had to prioritize what I teach, I’d say that caring is the most important thing,” he says. “Any fine program can teach you surgical procedure.”
In addition to showing residents his habit of triple-checking in the OR, Watkins demonstrates what it means to be close. “I sit down on the bed with my patients, like an old family doctor,” says Watkins. “My residents see me touch someone’s hand or cheek. Those are reassuring things. You can’t be emotionally close unless you’re physically close.”
His residents also see him teaching his patients and their families about heart surgery, the potential risks, and his backup plans (another Watkins rule: Have more than one plan). Watkins attributes his empathy to growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, where as a boy he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.
In the 1960s, Watkins was the first black student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “You have to struggle a little bit to appreciate other people’s struggles,” he says. Or at the very least, you need a strong role model. When he came to Hopkins as a resident, Watkins worked alongside Vincent Gott, the chief cardiac surgeon at the time. “Dr. Gott taught me how to show compassion for patients,” says Watkins. “He was a sermon that I enjoyed seeing.”