Sunday, November 20, 2011

Paying Your Dues or to Paraphrase Charlie Brown...

"Doesn't anyone know what surgery is all about?"

I've been wrestling with this question for the past four weeks and it hasn't been an easy match. I thought I had it pinned a couple of times and then it squirmed out from under me. Think about those occasions when you've watched Olympic wrestling and you'll get an idea what I mean. Both shoulders have to touch the floor at the same time for a winner to be called and close isn't close enough.

For my friends who are surgeons-in-residency or our preceptors, the answer is probably straightforward, surgery is about cutting. Suggesting there is a deeper philosophical significance for what they do is likely to trigger a smile, a good natured nudge in the ribs, and, "There Beggar goes again." Sorry, guys (a non-gender specific term for me, inclusive of gals, guys, and a dog or two thrown in for good measure). I can't help it. Finding meaning is what I do.

That said, I'm really not referring to surgery as such, but to basic surgical training, i.e. third-year surgical rotations. The former is way out of my league, but regarding the latter, to borrow from Country singer/songwriter Garth Brooks, I'll "choose to chance the rapids and dare to dance the tide." But as anyone knows who's rafted the Colorado or any other big river, you've got to have a guide who knows the water, and on this chilly November morning, it's my father's turn to take the tiller.

What does a saddlemaker have to do with surgery? Aside from the fact that he was well-acquainted with sharp knives and slicing through flesh? He knew what it was like to be an apprentice. You see, at the end of World War II, when he was discharged from the Army, the way someone pursued a career in saddle making was by apprenticing themselves to masters of the art. These were men, predominantly, who began honing their craft well before my father was born. They started out precisely as he was expected to, by sweeping the shop floor, watching and listening, doing a lot of what we call in medicine, "scut work," and waiting his turn.

It was frustrating, he told me years later, because he wanted to learn and surely, that was best done by doing. Being told he wasn't ready to "do," that he'd be told when he was, tried every ounce of patience he could muster. Slowly, over time, he was allowed to take carving tools and scrap leather home to practice and eventually, one thing led to another. It was very much like a third-year surgical rotation, I've decided.

For my part, I spend a great deal of time watching and keeping my hands to myself. Students have two primary tasks in a rotation like this. The first is learning how to refrain from contaminating yourself or anything and anyone else in the operating room, no small feat in itself.
One false move and you've touched something you shouldn't or bumped into someone you wish you hadn't. Mikhail Baryshnikov would cringe at the choreography.

The second task is harder, perhaps hardest of all. It entails practicing knot tying and suturing at home, standing next to the surgeon for what feels like forever, waiting to be invited to participate at the most rudimentary of levels, i.e. holding a retractor, snipping sutures, or if you're lucky, stapling an incision closed. If you're really lucky, like I was the other day, you get to guide a laproscopic camera, which has been inserted through a plastic tube called a trochanter, into a patient's abdomen, while your preceptor removes an inflamed gall bladder. It felt like I was moving up in the world.

Seriously, you want very badly, as a student, to do something that matters. It's one of the primary reasons we attend medical school in the first place. In a specialty like surgery, however, and truthfully, in all medical specialties, we have to learn the value of humility. We're students, after all, and the only proficiency we possess at this point in our education is that of memorizing large quantities of material, a skill which, our preceptors inform us, has limited applicability in the world of real medicine. It's all about learning how to wait your turn and appreciate every opportunity to do more.

Horace Mann wrote, "More will sometimes be demanded of you than is reasonable. Bear it meekly, and exhaust your time and strength in performing your duties, rather than vindicating your rights." Eventually, your time will come and those who've witnessed your commitment and devotion, will remember you as one who worked your heart out and didn't complain. As my father would say, it's called paying your dues.

(Creative Commons image of Charlie Brown shopping for a Christmas tree by KIT via Flickr; The River lyrics copyright by Garth Brooks)

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