This Halloween season, I saw a pumpkin that had been carved with just the date “2020” on it. Scary, right? The year 2020 is perhaps the first year to become, in and of itself, a self-explanatory meme. And for good reason—the year had a seemingly endless onslaught of negative events that affected many of us on a personal level. Some might reasonably request if 2020 could simply be fast-forwarded and concluded early. With an ugly election dispute and a third COVID wave underway, it is hard to imagine that much will happen in the rest of this year that will salvage the reputation of 2020 in our personal memories and in the history books. However bad the year was on paper, for me 2020 will always be a bittersweet and complicated year due to personal and academic growth.
Many surgeons who regularly experience a significant degree of professional stress have had to reconcile this with growing personal stress this year. There was a combination of external factors: a raging global pandemic, a divisive presidency, systemic racism and inequality, and radical disruptions to our social and home lives (to name a few). It is truly heartbreaking to see us all struggle from factors that are clearly not within our control.
For myself, the year 2020 was a mixed bag of both personal progression and volatility. I graduated and finally progressed from trainee (surgical fellow) to attending surgeon. I moved across the country to a new city, returning to my Midwest roots. Most importantly, I had a beautiful baby with my partner. This created a bit of a surreal juxtaposition between my professional reality and the external reality that many were experiencing. These were difficult life changes, but I considered myself extremely lucky. It put the stressors in context, as I was humbled by the fact that many others had far more difficult ones to deal with.
To be a new attending surgeon, and to be a new parent, is actually similar in some ways: both represent a total leap into the unknown. As much as advice from people you trust (mentors during training, your parents, and grandparents) can be helpful in either realm, there is nothing that can truly prepare you other than the life experience (and inevitable failures) itself. And in both situations, you feel a true twinge of terror at the underlying notion that this life before you is truly in your hands.
People warned me about the sleep deprivation of being a new parent, but ultimately I have found so far that it doesn’t match the sleep deprivation of surgery residency. It has, however, given even more respect to parents everywhere, particularly those parents who have children during residency training years.
The concept of “academic advancement” became all the more difficult this year, as it is hard to advance anywhere when quarantined at home. For this reason, many struggled balancing life’s new unexpected demands with their career pursuits. Childcare became a major impediment to our work lives due to the shutdown of schools and daycare facilities. Research halted academic stipends, conferences were canceled, and many labs were closed. Clinically, the efforts were drastic too—many surgeons were not able to treat their patients for months as elective and non-emergent surgeries were halted to prioritize the care of COVID-19 patients. Many hospitals and institutions had hiring freezes and some even mandatory furloughs.
Concurrently, the death of George Floyd sparked a season of well-justified unrest across the country, as many within the black community called upon a country to be outraged about the violence that had been perpetrated against them. As racial, political, and economic tensions came crashing together, the country fractured along our usual political lines into what appears to be an ever-widening chasm.
As we head into a holiday season where many of us won’t be able to reunite with our loved ones in person, and perhaps have to celebrate from great distances to keep each other safe, I am sure that many will be ready to say “good riddance” to 2020. And at times, it may seem like there was little to say “thanks” for this Thanksgiving, especially as many of us will be celebrating in a much more humble and smaller scale. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a job and a healthy family during such a difficult year. And to be able to make strides in my professional development, I also consider myself quite lucky. At the end of the day, we are all just doing the best we can during these notoriously “trying times”. So hold on to your loved ones, and be the best surgeon that you can be. For, in the end, a year of time in this short life we have is far too precious a gift to discard, regardless of the trials and tribulations the world presents around us. And 2020 will end, and 2021 will bring with it the hope for better times. Hopefully next Halloween, “2021” need not be a self-explanatory joke carved into pumpkins. So may surgeons everywhere continue to pursue both their personal and professional goals without the burdens of the world making it all but impossible.