When I was a second-year general surgery resident, I spent the month of December on the emergency general surgery service. It was dark when I drove to work in the morning and dark when I left the hospital, and like most junior residents at that time of year, I felt overworked, over-stressed, and discouraged. Much of our second year focused on critical care, which meant we spent less time in the operating room than we had as interns. However, on emergency general surgery, I was finally starting to build some confidence.
At the end of the month, I was in the middle of a very difficult cholecystectomy with the chief resident. After we struggled for a bit, our attending, Dr. Bill Riordan, scrubbed in, and with his guidance, we were able to complete the case safely and laparoscopically. As I was leaving the operating room, Dr. Riordan pulled me aside in the hallway and told me that he wanted to give me some immediate feedback because it would probably be months before I would see his written evaluation. He told me that I had been doing a good job. He said some very kind things about my operative ability and improvement, which- at that low point in residency- meant the world to me. And then he told me something that I remember vividly to this day: “Stay humble.” He spoke of surgeons’ inclination to become arrogant as they grow in confidence, how easy it is to feel like a hero. But he quietly reminded me to resist that temptation, to guard against it.
Sometime over the next year, Dr. Riordan gave Grand Rounds on the topic of humility. Regretfully, I don’t remember everything about his lecture, but I do remember his disclosure, that even he was subject to his own ego, manifested by his own nervousness about how his talk would be received by the audience that morning. His talk deviated from the typical grand rounds format; instead of reviewing the latest data or highlighting his personal accomplishments, he focused on the human side of being a surgeon. He shared his own vulnerabilities and failures, bringing an element of honesty that I hadn’t seen shared so openly in a public forum before.
Few surgeons conducted themselves with the same thoughtfulness and self-awareness as Dr. Riordan, and I, along with my fellow residents, respected him immensely for it. Then, while sitting in an MPH class a year or so later, I learned that Dr. Riordan had died unexpectedly, at the age of 42.
Although I only knew him for a few years, Dr. Riordan’s legacy has had a lasting impact on me, not only from my personal interactions with him, but also from the example he set daily. Rank or title carried no weight to Dr. Riordan; he treated patients, nurses, staff, residents, and families as his equals. He had the most enjoyable sarcastic wit and was fiercely honest. But it was his kindness, his gentleness, and his humility that is the most memorable.
I am not always the surgeon, or person, I would like to be, and there are moments or events that I regret how I have handled. In the stress of our jobs, it can be hard to be generous and patient at times. Fortunately, we learn from others: sometimes from the obvious and charismatic leaders, and at other times, from our quiet and unassuming colleagues, who are doing the right thing because quite simply, it is the right thing to do.
May we all strive to be a bit more like Dr. Riordan: to keep our ego in check and to respect the trust granted to us by every patient on whom we operate. Awards, accolades, and titles may bring us the temporary sense of accomplishment and validation that is so sought after in academic surgery. But we must not lose sight of the most important gifts we have to offer our colleagues and our patients.
Be kind. Be gentle. Stay humble.
Dr. Bill Riordan was an Assistant Professor of Surgery, Chief of Emergency General Surgery, and a member of the Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care at Vanderbilt Medical Center. He died on September 9, 2011.