Mentor on a Mission

After 24 years as a dedicated UNC teacher, doctor and mentor, Jacob Lohr, MD, received the highest award he could ask for – an academic service award from his peers.

Mentor on a Mission click to enlarge Jacob Lohr, MD
Mentor on a Mission click to enlarge Sarah Zimmerman, MD, and Jacob Lohr, MD. Dr. Zimmerman was Dr. Lohr's medical student advisee at UNC in 2004-2005 and is currently on faculty in the Pediatrics department.

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The year was 1969, and Jacob Lohr, MD, chief resident in pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, stationed himself at the back of a lecture hall to work a projector on behalf of his old mentor, Floyd Denny, MD, the Chief of UNC’s Pediatrics Department, who was in Charlottesville as a visiting professor. On that day, during Grand Rounds, Dr. Denny was scheduled to give one of his always impeccably presented lectures.

He motioned for his former student, whom he simply called “Lohr,” to start the slide projector. Dr. Lohr flipped the switch. Not long into the lecture, as Dr. Denny looked to the audience to discuss the ins and outs of pediatric care, the image on the screen began to darken at the edges. A yellowish-brown hue encroached from each corner until every last word on the screen was engulfed.

The screen turned bright white as the audience heard a stomping sound at the back of the room, and there was Dr. Lohr stamping out a slide that had caught fire inside the projector. Quickly, Dr. Lohr blew the smoke away, recaptured his confidence, and slid the next slide into the projector.

Dr. Denny continued his lecture, pointing to an image on the screen until he saw that yellowish-brown color intrude from the edges again. Dr. Lohr again retrieved the burning slide from the projector and stamped out the fire.

Dr. Denny peered at his former student; his impeccable lecture was lost to technical difficulties. And Dr. Lohr knew what his old mentor was thinking: “Lohr, I want to set YOU on fire.”

Lohr, feeling awful, quickly retrieved another projector as the audience of doctors murmured to each other.

The last thing on Dr. Lohr’s mind that day, 45 years ago, was that he would one day earn an award named for Dr. Denny to honor a stellar career dedicated to treating kids, teaching students, and mentoring young doctors.

But this September, that’s exactly what happened when Dr. Jacob Lohr was honored as the 13th recipient of the Denny, Katz, Simon, and Tingelstad Academic Service Award, which is given to an academic pediatrician for outstanding efforts to improve health and wellness for the children of North Carolina.

We met with Dr. Lohr to talk about the award, his chosen profession, and what it means to be a mentor.

5q-pediatricianWhy did you decide to become a doctor and specialize in pediatrics, and why did you choose UNC for undergrad work and for medical school, too?

I was just discussing this with some students; why did they choose medicine and UNC. We were all in agreement – it’s an emotional decision. There’s nothing terribly rational about it. I couldn’t just write the pluses on one side of the ledger and the negatives down the other side. For me, I was driven by my family. My father was a physician in Lexington, NC. So I started saying I was going to be a doctor when I was five. It was actually a toss-up between being a doctor and being a cowboy movie star – a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry type.

My father and older brother both went to Carolina for their undergraduate degree and medical school. That was certainly an influence.

As for pediatrics, that was another decision where I can’t really say why I chose it. But I did think about it before medical school, probably because I was a swim coach. I was on the swim team at Carolina and I coached kids for seven years.

So that experience with kids and my comfort in dealing with kids was part of my decision to become a pediatrician. Then, in medical school, I thought of other specialties, but I came back to pediatrics mostly because I liked to take care of the kinds of diseases that children had, and I liked the fact that kids are so resilient. They have the capacity to fight back and get over things. And it’s quite important to recognize that you can have a substantial impact on kids as they grow up.

Also, the fact that I’d get to work with pediatricians, who are just a really good group of people, played into my decision.

5q-newmicroscopeAfter medical school, you did your residency at the University of Virginia. Then you joined the faculty there for quite a while. How did you wind up back at UNC?

Yes, I was on the faculty in Charlottesville for 18 years, and I never thought I’d go anywhere else. I was very comfortable there. I had an endowed professorship, and a lot of administrative responsibilities.

In fact, UNC recruited me to come back in the late 70s and early 80s, but I turned them down because the job they wanted me to do was not academic enough. It wasn’t a job where I thought I’d be doing as much research as I was doing at UVA.

I was never someone you’d mention and think research, first. I’ve always been a physician and educator, but I always really liked to answer questions, and that’s been true throughout my career.

So, not until they recruited me to run a very academic general pediatric division did I come back. That was in 1990. And even then it took me five trips back to Chapel Hill before I accepted the position. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it has turned out to be a good one.

5q-bacteriaYou’ve written many book chapters and research articles. What research has been the most important to you, the field, and to patients?

I’ve had an unusual research career that started in infectious diseases. My biggest contributions were in the areas of urinary tract infection and conjunctivitis. There were other things, but those were the biggest.

My research on urinary tract infections involved diagnosis. I did several studies on the utility of urinalysis in diagnosing infections. I also served on a national committee that created guidelines for treatment.

In conjunctivitis, my contributions were in treatment. I did several clinical trials. One of them compared a drug to a placebo and showed that treatment actually did have an impact on the course of the infection. A lot of people at the time, including the investigators, thought that if you treated conjunctivitis, then the course of the infection would last about seven days, whereas if you left it alone it would last about a week.

We were wrong. There’s a benefit to getting therapy, clinically and bacteriologically, early in the treatment of conjunctivitis. Later, at the end of the course, there’s no clinical benefit; you’re going to get better eventually with or without therapy. You just get better faster with therapy. But bacteriologically, there’s an advantage to both early and later treatment because you’ll eradicate the organism that caused the conjunctivitis. The bacteria, without treatment, could still be hanging around even though you’re clinically improved.

5q-teamtealYou’ve been the primary mentor of more than 40 people who are now faculty members in positions of medical leadership across the country. What’s the key to being a good mentor?

Jack Welsh, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, has a saying that I agree with. He says that the most important part of becoming a leader is developing yourself; the most important part of being a leader is developing others.

I think that’s key. Those who report to leaders at any leadership level should be utilized for their existing talents, but also given responsibilities that allow the further development of those existing talents, as well as the new development of additional ones. 

So the thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve mentored some people who’ve attained levels I never attained. And it isn’t like being a parent of a child you hope will become a great football player when you had no chance of being that. What I’m talking about is different. It’s more about seeing these younger people succeed in your own field. There are 15 or 16 division chiefs of pediatrics around the country who had been in my division at one time. I’m very proud of that.

Regarding mentoring, I think it’s important that the mentor has a strong reputation based on significant achievements, that they’re knowledgeable and experienced, that they share interests with their mentees, and that they are accessible to the mentee.

I also think mentors have to have patience and the ability to articulate clear advice. One thing I’m very comfortable doing that some others choose not to do – whether it’s teaching or mentoring – is putting a lot of responsibilities in the hands of those who are developing themselves, because that’s how they will make the most progress. I don’t teach very well by just doing it all and saying, “Here’s how you do it.”

Also, it’s important to not hesitate to say I would’ve done something differently, so they do get that input. Being supportive is important, but I believe in being supportive when someone has earned it. I don’t offer a lot of compliments when they’ve just done what they’re supposed to do. I don’t think that’s necessarily healthy.

Our residents will tell you that I have high expectations of them. And I like to hear that.

5q-trophyWhat does it mean to you, personally, to receive this award – the Denny, Katz, Simon, and Tingelstad Academic Service Award?

It means a lot of things. It’s a great award. It means I’m being honored by a statewide group of pediatricians – my peers. That’s important to me. Our state pediatric society, which is part of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is arguably the best in the country for a lot of reasons. As I told them when I accepted the award, if we’re not the best state society in country, we’re at least the best collection of pediatricians in the country. So it’s important for that reason.

And I happen to have known each of those individuals for whom the award is named. Each one was chair of a department of pediatrics in North Carolina. I had huge respect for each of them. Floyd Denny, who was chair here at UNC, was my mentor when I was a medical student and remained my mentor for over thirty years. He was still here when I came back to UNC. In fact, he was in my division. I reminded him often that I was his boss.

His office was right next to mine and I’m very proud to be able to say that he became my friend, not just my mentor. But he was a very demanding mentor. He could be very blunt in his criticisms. And everybody who loved that man – and there were a lot of people who did – would tell you that he would not hesitate to take you to task.

So, the award is quite an honor. It does mean a lot to me.

Media Contacts: Mark Derewicz, UNC School of Medicine, mark.derewicz@unchealth.unc.edu or Danielle Bates, NC Children’s Hospital, danielle_bates@med.unc.edu
Photos and icons by Max Englund, UNC Health Care,

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