Hearing voices

Tags: texas family physician, perspective, aafp, leadership, van winkle

By Lloyd Van Winkle, M.D.
TAFP’s senior delegate to the AAFP Congress of Delegates

This year’s AAFP annual session will mark the end of my service as chief delegate from Texas to the American Academy of Family Physicians Congress of Delegates. It is the office that affords one the special privilege of speaking from the floor and participating in debate concerning the broad spectrum of issues that come before AAFP’s legislative body.

Speaking on the floor of the Congress of Delegates is a bit of a heady experience. You rise from your seat and walk to a microphone. Once there, you make sure your thoughts are in order, pause while cultivating butterflies, and wait to be recognized by the speaker of the Congress. Once recognized, you take a deep breath, muster some spit, and identify yourself. I start with the customary statement of my name and state: “Van Winkle from Texas.” You then address your fellow delegates in a manner you hope will be clear and understandable. You would also like your comments to be eloquent enough to persuade others. If you are like me, you secretly pray that at least you won’t sound like an idiot and embarrass your state.

You might wonder, how does one get to be in that seat? How did I get to be the senior delegate? Most of those who have served as delegate in recent years have been past presidents of TAFP; they have been involved in other state activities, been on state committees and commissions, and have served at the national level as well. In truth though, I believe any member in good standing can apply for the job.

It is worth mentioning that one doesn’t just pop into the senior delegate seat. First you serve as alternate delegate for two terms, though in my case, that period lasted only three years because Leah Raye Mabry, M.D., vacated her position as senior delegate when she was elected to the position of vice speaker, allowing me to move up to junior delegate. You then serve as junior delegate until the senior delegate spot opens, either by end of term or election to office. Because we have so many Texans with a heart to serve, we elect quite a few, so moving up early is not uncommon.

While serving as alternate delegate and then in the number-two seat as junior delegate waiting to become the captain of the ship, I really started to think about the responsibility. I watched those who were going before me and knew I wanted to live up to the standards of all who had served before. That’s where my butterflies came from. I have sat through years and years of floor debates on everything from abortion to gun control, from same-sex adoption to Coca-Cola, Tar Wars, and more. I have heard gifted speakers craft delicately worded legislation and present it in a way that would have persuaded Obama to vote for McCain. All the time watching, listening, knowing that those going before me had carried the ball well. We may not have scored on every possession, but I witnessed no fumbles.

I was in a whole new league. Texas has had some amazing talent sitting in those seats speaking for us. As I would stand and walk to the microphone, memories of those who had spoken for Texas before me would play in my head. The list of those leaders is too long to include, but my personal favorite was Tim Lambert, M.D., and that is saying a lot because he is up against stiff competition, surrounded by the likes of Drs. Jim Martin, Leah Raye Mabry, and Roland Goertz, all former senior delegates, all great speakers. Some issues might require passion in the address, while the next might require a more measured, intellectual, or analytical tone. Tim did it all so well. He could sense the mood of the Congress as he spoke, adding a touch of his own brand of extemporaneous wit at just the right time.

Who am I kidding? They were all amazing. Everyone who spoke for Texas was hitting home runs. Then me—just a little country doctor from central Texas was going to be next. This wasn’t some talk to residents or students where you could back up and correct yourself. This was the Congress of Delegates. It was a little anxiety-provoking to say the least.

My years as senior delegate have flown by. I have been to that microphone so many times it may look routine, but it never is; and after this fall’s meeting of the Congress, the next alternate will move up and the junior will become senior delegate. That new senior delegate will be the one to carry the torch for Texas.

I want to say a special thanks to Tim and the rest of you who have gone before and done so well. I still have this fall to serve, and I’ll relish the opportunity to stand at the microphone and say “Van Winkle from Texas” a few more times. I will once again be honored to serve Texas, and those who have read this will know as I walk to the microphone, I am hearing the voices of all those who spoke before me.

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