MadSci Network: Medicine

Re: What is it like to be a surgeon?

Date: Tue Jan 11 13:48:16 2000
Posted By: R. James Swanson, Faculty, Biological Sciences, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Old Dominion University
Area of science: Medicine
ID: 946239294.Me

Dear Mathew,

I am not an MD-type of surgeon but I have veterinarian training and use small animal surgery in both my research and in teaching a graduate-level small animal surgery course at Old Dominion University. I also teach the graduate-level Human Gross Anatomy course that involves dissection on human cadavers. Therefore I will give you my two-cents on this topic though someone else’s answer might be totally different. Surgery (live subjects) is much more exciting than dissection (non-living subjects) although I have never tired of exploring and teaching human anatomy since starting to teach in 1969 at Florida State University (this year’s national champs in football, I must point out). [As an aside to your expanded question of your message section, I received my graduate training (MS) in exercise physiology at FSU and a PhD in biological sciences with emphasis in reproductive endocrinology also at FSU. I have an undergraduate degree (BS) in physical education and in nursing (BSN) and am a board-certified RN and HCLD (high complexity laboratory director). I co-direct the Andrology Laboratory at the Jones Institute of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Eastern Virginia Medical School where I hold an adjunct associate professorship, and am a professor of biological sciences at ODU.] The emotional edge present in surgery is the factor that makes surgery so much more exciting than dissection. In the MD world the surgeon is the butt of many god- type jokes, and in truth many surgeons justifiably earn the negative reputation because of their unabashed numero uno affect. In their defense I must say that to be a quality surgeon requires not only a gigantic knowledge base but also a healthy dose of self-confidence. I would never want to go into an operation under the knife of a surgeon who was questioning himself as to whether or not he might be able to do the surgery successfully. How does one develop and use the energy of a healthy self-confidence while separating and protecting oneself from slipping into an inappropriate (and even destructive) gigantic ego? For the research scientist it is easy. I have never yet had an animal thank me for the competent surgery I did on it, nor have I had any of its family members tell me what a great surgeon I am. But the excitement is still there. The excitement in discovering how something works (physiology) or how something is put together (structure) through the use of surgery is never ending for me. The design of the human body, and really all mammals that I have ever worked with, is simply fascinating.

I assume you are considering surgery as a career goal, and if so you will want to carefully cultivate a number of attributes. I am not preaching at you but only giving advice that I take for myself as well, and I am not finished developing these character traits in my life at all. First, there is no substitute for scholastic excellence, and not paying attention to this aspect of your planning will result in an automatic rejection from any reputable med school. Also a scientist or a physician never stops studying, even after graduation. Second, you should develop your interests in areas other than the sciences so that you become a multidimensional person. This should involve the activities and subject areas in which you have an interest. I still water ski once or twice a week during the 7 or 8 warmest months of the year and get great pleasure from taking my young-adult children and their friends skiing too (they help clean the boat). I play squash and racket ball with friends and family. I enjoy teaching an adult Sunday school class and singing at church. I relish bike riding with my wife and camping with my grandchildren. I have a poor man’s woodshop in my garage, and so forth. These are all activities I developed in my pre-teen and teen years and this is what keeps me a little bit sane at my job. You never want your job to become the sum-total of who you are or the numero uno bug will attack. All universities and colleges like to see evidence of this multidimensional character in an application no matter what you plan as your life goal to earn enough money to eat. And in that regard don’t be fooled, never make money a goal. You can never make enough money to be satisfied. There is a story about a man asking a billionaire how much money would be enough to satisfy him and the rich man said, “I don’t know, but I’m not there yet.” Third, cultivate honesty within yourself. Honesty requires developing the inner attitude of being willing to speak and act to your own hurt. This is counterintuitive to reason. I have found that I must make this decision before the opportunity to demonstrate honesty arises because it is so easy to protect myself in every situation. Honesty is a crucial attribute for all humans to develop but especially those in the health care area because we have people’s quality of life, and sometimes life itself, in our hands. Forth, strive to be the best you can be in every area to which you put your hand. Excellence, even in hobbies, is not only rewarding in itself, but opens up so many doors of opportunity. Finally, and this is probably second in importance only to scholastic achievement, regularly and frequently volunteer your time, energy, and goods (modest as your money may be at your age) to help people that can give you nothing in return but a “Thank you”, if even that much. Do this work with no though of reward, not even the patting of your own self on the back. This will develop your character in marvelous ways and will become addictive, one of the few addictions I can heartily recommend.

My best wishes for your studies and work toward your goal.

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