Life as a Surgeon
Surgical careers begin long before one is known as a surgeon. Medicine in general, and surgery in particular, is competitive from the start. As the competition begins, in college or earlier, students are confronted with choices of doing what interests them and what they may truly enjoy vs doing what is required to get to the next step. It is easy to get caught up in the routine of what is required and to lose track of why one wanted to become a doctor, much less a surgeon, in the first place. The professions of medicine and surgery are vocations that require extensive knowledge and skill. They also require a high level of discretion and trustworthiness. The social contract between the medical profession and the public holds professionals to very high standards of competence and moral responsibility. Tom Krizek goes on to explain that a profession is a declaration of a way of life ‘‘in which expert knowledge is used not primarily for personal gain, but for the benefit of those who need that knowledge.’’
For physicians, part of professionalism requires that when confronted with a choice between what is good for the physician and what is good for the patient, they choose the latter. This occurs and is expected sometimes to the detriment of personal good and that of physicians’ families. Tom Krizek even goes so far as to question whether surgery is an ‘‘impairing profession.’’ This forces one to consider the anticipated lifestyle. In sorting this out, it is neither an ethical breach nor a sign of weakness to allocate high priority to families and to personal well-being. When trying to explain why surgery may be an impairing profession, Krizek expands with a cynical description of the selection process. Medical schools seek applicants with high intelligence; responsible behavior; a studious, hard-working nature; a logical and scientific approach to life and academics; and concern for living creatures. He goes further to explain that in addition to these characteristics, medical schools also look for intensity and drive, but are often unable to make distinctions among those who are too intense, have too much drive, or are too ingratiating.
There are many ethical challenges confronting medical students. As they start, medical students often have altruistic intentions, and at the same time are concerned with financial security. The cost of medical education is significant. This can encourage graduates to choose specialty training according to what will provide them the most expedient means of repaying their debt. This can have a significant, and deleterious, impact on the health care system in that the majority of medical graduates choose to pursue specialty training, leaving a gap in the availability of primary care providers. As medical students move into their clinical training, they begin interacting with patients. One concern during this time is how medical students should respond and carry on once they believe that a mistake on their part has resulted in the injury or death of another human being. In addition, the demands of studying for tests, giving presentations, writing notes, and seeing patients can be overwhelming. The humanistic and altruistic values that medical students have when they enter medical school can be lost as they take on so much responsibility. They can start to see patient interactions as obstacles that get in the way of their other work requirements. During their clinical years, medical students decide what field they will ultimately pursue. For students to make an informed decision about a career in surgery, they need to know what surgeons do, why they do it, and how surgery differs from other branches of medicine. It is important for them to be aware of what the life of a surgeon entails and whether it is possible for them to balance a surgical career with a rewarding family life.
Beginning residents are confronted with a seemingly unbearable workload, and they experience exhaustion to the point where the patient may seem like ‘‘the enemy.’’ At the same time, they must learn how to establish strong trusting relationships with patients. For the first time, they face the challenge of accepting morbidity and death that may have resulted directly from their own actions. It is important that residents learn ways to communicate their experience to friends and family, who may not understand the details of a surgeon’s work but can provide valuable support. The mid-level resident confronts the ethical management of ascending levels of responsibility and risks, along with increasing emphasis on technical knowledge and skills. It is at this level that the surgical education process is challenged to deal with the resident who does not display the ability to gain the skills required to complete training as a surgeon. Residents at this level also must deal with the increasing level of responsibility to the more junior residents and medical students who are dependent on them as teacher, organizer, and role model. All of this increasing responsibility comes at a time when the resident must read extensively, maintain a family life, and begin to put long-range plans into practice in preparation for the last rotation into the chosen final career path. The senior surgical resident should have acquired the basics of surgical technique and patient management, accepting nearly independent responsibility for patient care. The resident at this level must efficiently and fairly coordinate the functioning team, engage in teaching activities, and work closely with all complements of the staff. As far as ethics education is concerned, residents at this stage should be able to teach leadership, teamwork, and decision-making. They should be prepared to take on the value judgments that guide the financial and political aspects of the medical and surgical practice.
The Complete Surgeon
The trained surgeon must be aware of the need to differentiate between the business incentives of medical care and doing what is right for a sick individual. As financial and professional pressures become more intense, the challenge increases to appropriately prioritize and balance the demands of patient care, family, education, teaching, and research. For example, how does the surgeon deal with the choice between attending a child’s graduation or operating on an old patient who requests him rather than an extremely well-trained associate who is on call? How many times do surgeons make poor choices with respect to the balance of family vs work commitments? Someone else can
competently care for patients, but only parents can be uniquely present in the lives of their children. Time flies, and surgeons must often remind themselves that their lives and the lives of their family members are not just a dress rehearsal.
Knowing When to Quit
A 65-year-old surgeon who maintains a full operating and office schedule, is active in community and medical organizations, and has trained most of her surgical colleagues is considering where to go next with her career. Recently, her hospital acquired the equipment to allow robotic dissection in the area where she does her most complicated procedures. She has just signed up to learn this new technology, but is beginning to reflect on the advisability of doing this. How long should she continue at this pace, and how does she know when to slow down and eventually quit operating and taking the responsibility of caring for patients? Murray Brennan summarizes the dilemma of the senior surgeon well. The senior surgeon is old enough and experienced enough to do what he does well. He yearns for the less complicated days where he works and is rewarded for his endeavors. He becomes frustrated by restrictive legislation, the tyranny of compliance, and the loss of autonomy. Now regulated, restricted, and burdened with compliance, with every medical decision questioned by an algorithm or guideline, he watches his autonomy of care be ever eroded. Frustrated at not being able to provide the care, the education, and the role model for his juniors, he abandons the challenge.
Finishing with Grace
Each surgeon should continuously map a career pathway that integrates personal and professional goals with the outcome of maintaining value, balance, and personal satisfaction throughout his or her professional career. He or she should cultivate habits of personal renewal, emotional self-awareness, and connection with colleagues and support systems, and must find genuine meaning in work to combat the many challenges. Surgeons also need to set an example of good health for their patients. Maintaining these values and healthy habits is the work of a lifetime. Rothenberger describes the master surgeon as a person who not only knows when rules apply, recognizes patterns, and has the experience to know what to do, but also knows when rules do not apply, when they must be altered to fit the specifics of an individual case, and when inaction is the best course of action. Every occasion is used to learn more, to gain perspective and nuance. In surgery, this is the rare individual who puts it all together, combining the cognitive abilities, the technical skills, and the individualized decision-making needed to tailor care to a specific patient’s illness, needs, and preferences despite incomplete and conflicting data. The master surgeon has an intuitive grasp of clinical situations and recognizes potential difficulties before they become major problems. He prioritizes and focuses on real problems. He possesses insight and finds creative ways to manage unusual and complex situations. He is realistic, self-critical, and humble. He understands his limitations and is willing to seek help without hesitation. He adjusts his plans to fit the specifics of the situation. He worries about his decisions, but is emotionally stable.