I sat waiting for the surgeon I’d work with to arrive at the hospital. Being a medical student involves a lot of waiting. On the wall across from where I sat and next to my surgeon preceptor’s office was a wall of fame, of sorts, of surgeons gone by. The black-and-white photos caught my attention because every single surgeon depicted there was a white male. The irony was that most of the surgeons I would come to respect in the weeks to follow would fit neither or only one of the “white male” descriptors. The surgeon I was waiting for, for example, was neither white nor male. She would single-handedly show me what it meant to be an excellent surgeon.
The operating room is cold. The lights are stark. If you are helping with an operation you “scrub in” (which involves washing your hands in a special way and putting on sterile gloves and a sterile gown). Once scrubbed in, you maintain sterility the entire procedure which includes only touching sterile things and keeping your hands in front of you and between the level of your bellybutton and chest. Bathroom breaks and snack breaks aren’t an option for medical students in the operating room, so I tried my best to do those things before entering the room.
Once the patient is settled on the operating table, they’re put to sleep by anesthesia. As soon as it’s confirmed that the patient is asleep, their eyelids are closed with tape to protect their eye structures and a tube is placed down their throat to help them breathe.
While the patient is asleep surgery unfolds. All surgeries are done with a team of people, the surgeon is only one member of that team, and the surgery is not successful without every team member. The patient is covered with drapes except for the area where the operation will occur. This is interesting because the humanness of the patient is lost. Their body becomes a workspace once the drapes are placed. It may sound disrespectful, but it isn’t. Rather, the drapes are meant to protect the sterile workspace and maintain patient modesty.
Surgeons are the artists of medicine. Much like carpenters and painters and jewelers and other craftspeople they make their living by using their hands. The difference, however, between surgeons’ hands and carpenters’ hands, for example, is stark. The surgeons’ hands are soft and their fingers nibble while the carpenters’ hands are rough and their fingers strong.
Surgery is all about feel and dexterity. Surgeons tie knots with thin thread to keep arteries from bleeding. They sew with curved needles using plyer-like instruments. During surgery, it’s the surgeon’s hands that impress. Their fingertips can feel the difference between disease and health in tissue. Their hands can somehow hold more tools than you thought possible.
Ask a surgeon about surgery and about the operating room and their eyes become bright. They smile. They draw pictures and use their hands to describe structures. They talk about the neat surgeries and bodies they’ve seen. They talk about how many operations they’ve done. Surgeons are like artists. They love their craft and exude a love for their studio (the operating room).
I would eventually join a surgery led by the surgeon I had waited for by the surgeon wall of fame. A resident and I were helping her. The resident was soon to finish and become an independent practitioner. The surgeon was busy operating; I was holding a camera (used to see inside the abdomen); and the resident was doing something else to help the surgeon. “People will not take you seriously because you are a small female,” the surgeon said to the resident. “Don’t be disheartened. Respect is earned.” The surgeon would go on to discuss the importance of appropriate financial compensation for your work and doing excellent work. I would hear this message about differences and respect several times during my surgery rotation. I would feel why multiple women ahead of me thought they needed to tell me and my colleagues this information. Yet, it wasn’t new information because I, like most others, didn’t make it through my 20s without learning how my different identities help and hinder me.
There are many things that you could die from if it wasn’t for surgeons. But, as lifesaving as surgery is, it is also fraught with risk. Your surgeon can kill you. Having life and death literally in one’s hands is not a light matter, and you see its weight on the shoulders of surgeons when you work with them. The riskiness of surgery is also why the road to becoming a surgeon is a long, hard one. It involves many years filled with unfortunately long workdays. Apart from a grueling training marathon, surgeons have high personal standards for their work. High standards coupled with hard training leave many surgeons with a robust ego.
Egos aren’t all bad. You want a confident, proud surgeon. This is because you want someone who is very good at what they do and who takes pride in their work to operate on you. However, egos can be detrimental too. Too much ego can lead to poor listening skills, lack of self-reflection, and a complete disrespect for others. High-quality surgeons are confident because they are good at their work and love it, proud because they save lives, and humble because they know they are human and will make mistakes. The best surgeons are not only confident, proud, and humble but also curious. Curiosity makes the best surgeons because they not only love operating but, also, dig to the bottom of their patients’ stories, investigate thoroughly any mistake or less-than-perfect outcome, and keep up on the latest research and recommendations in their field.
On our last day working together, the surgeon that made me understand surgery had time to sit with me in her office by the surgeon wall of fame. She gave me some advice and her philosophy on medicine. “It’s nice when patients appreciate your work. You saved their life. But, they don’t have to and that’s not why I do it. I like to help people,” she said. The conversation continued for a bit. “People talk about quality of life. I don’t think it’s fair to say that you don’t want to do surgery because of the quality of life. Quality of life is something you make. For example, right now I pick up lots of call [24-hour shifts]. I do it because I am well compensated but, also, because it is good experience. I like to help people… I like having the cases [surgeries]… But, I won’t pick up call forever. Right now, it makes sense… It’s all about tradeoffs. You can work less and then you make less money… You can set the terms of your work,” she said.
As I left the hospital after my last day working with her, I thought about the surgeon I’d worked with. She was a calm and patient teacher – something that is rare. She had saved many lives. She had seen the inside of the body many times. Her hands could tell the difference between a fat glob and a cancer by feel alone. I’d seen her talking to patients with a patience you don’t find in all surgeons. I’d seen her interacting with all levels of hospital personal with a respect and kindness that was genuine. I’d heard her talk through her clinical reasoning; it was thorough. I’d seen her do surgery; she excelled. She was exactly what I’d call an excellent surgeon. I would have no hesitation sending my patients or family to her because I knew she’d treat them well and operate with precision. She was the first surgeon to go on my mental surgeon wall of fame. After that first day waiting outside her office, I’d decided to construct my own wall of fame (for surgeons and other types of physicians) because the one I’d seen in the hospital was outdated.