In the past week, I have attended a surgery department-sponsored mixer for first and second year medical students interested in surgery and have had brunch with an undergraduate pre-medical student. Both of these events featured young, eager individuals who were seeking advice, and sometimes reassurance, about their intended career paths. In conversation with these bright students, I was surprised at the concerns voiced about a potential career in surgery. Several times, I was asked why I chose surgery, if I would choose it again, and what my life was like as a surgeon.
I found myself describing the moments that led me to choose a career in surgery with great excitement. I fondly described my medical student mentor, a career missionary surgeon whose lectures of pediatric surgery in Africa taught me about innovative solutions to extremely challenging conditions, the gratitude of patients who turn to surgeons in their most extreme moments of need, and the amazing resilience of the human body and the human spirit. Smiling as I remembered this story, I found I was also able to include anecdotes of my own patients now that I’m nearing completion of my first year as faculty. I was able to tell these students of patients that I have operated on who have returned to clinic and cried in gratitude, or brought homemade cheesecake for the entire clinic staff, or asked to take a “selfie” with me for their Facebook page.
Of course, it isn’t all sunshine and roses, and even the most obnoxiously optimistic person doesn’t always have perfect experiences or outcomes. Detailing the sometimes painfully-long hours of residency, or the first time a patient I was close to died, or my first true complication brought up anxiety and stress as if I was re-living each moment. As I told these stories, I found that I can even look back on each of those seemingly negative experiences in a positive light, as they remind me of the great privilege of being a surgeon. Likewise, my work as a global surgeon, struggling to build surgical capacity in low-resource settings in Africa and the Middle East can sometimes feel a bit reminiscent of Sisyphus. However, telling stories of times when even the smallest accomplishments felt like great victories reminds me that we certainly don’t work hard for no reason. Deep down, most of us truly love what we have the privilege to do, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that excitement shines through from time to time.
Today’s health care environment makes it fairly easy to become overwhelmed, frustrated, or burnt out with seemingly endless administrative duties, institutional politics, or broken systems that sometime feel as though they are working against us in our attempts to provide quality surgical care. In this setting, I believe it is more imperative than ever to remember that for most of us, surgery is more than a job or a career… it’s a calling. Sharing that passion with the younger generations is perhaps the most helpful thing we can do. At the end of each of my encounters with students this week, I was thrilled to see the spark of enthusiasm returning to their eyes after our conversations. Like watching the magic of Disney World through the eyes of a child, the sense of wonder was palpable. Overall, I think a good proportion of today’s surgeons would be well-served by a re-dose of enthusiasm!