A friend of mine. A brother, a father, a son, a licensed physician. A man who never takes himself too seriously, a man who is always making a joke, and always bringing positivity into every room he steps into. He seems at peace. He lives a nice life. He has a nice home and car. His nonchalant demeanor and light-hearted attitude make it hard to believe that he could have ever been anything other than what he is now. Through my experiences with him, I imagined he had always been this jovial and care-free human being, taking life day-by-day, devoting his time to his hobbies, as well as seeing the occasional patient.
But before, he was known as the surgeon.
I only know him as the good-natured doctor with a passion for leisure and fishing, so at this point it’s almost hard to picture him as a surgeon. I didn’t meet him here at school, but rather from home. He was a family friend. And the type of guy who will talk your ear off, giving you enlightening wisdom even when you don’t ask for it. The kind of wisdom that you can’t read about in a book or teach – the kind of wisdom that has been attained through a lifetime of experience.
I couldn’t picture him cutting people open, commanding the operating room, or saving lives. He had the demeanor of a guy who sees patients for things like erectile dysfunction and makes inappropriate jokes from time to time. He didn’t have the characteristically intense type A personality of a surgeon.
I asked around. It’s been about ten years now since he operated apparently. No one really knows why he stopped. I wondered, I asked, but I had no answers. I was intrigued but I shied away from asking him directly.
Midway through my college career, because I was a hopeful premed and all, I started asking him a few questions here and there when I saw him, and of course, he’d give me advice until my clueless, ignorant younger self would make an excuse to end or change the conversation. When I’d ask him for direct tips about making it in the medical world , he’d weave the same phrase into every two minutes of conversation – “You have to be trainable, coachable, and educable”. I internally rolled my eyes each time. Pretty sure all those words mean the same thing.He repeated this sentence so many times it almost seemed like a business slogan. Not quite as catchy as “Just do it“, and I never really gave a shit about it. He never directly answered my questions. What MCAT score do I need to get in? How hard is it to make it as a surgeon? What specialty would you choose if you had to do it again?
You have to be trainable, coachable, and educable.
He never seemed too interested in talking about his current work. The type of guy who would rather show you a picture of his boat or a big fish he recently caught than discuss medicine. But when I asked him about his past life as a surgeon, his eyes would light up. I couldn’t stop asking questions. What’s the longest operation you’ve ever done? “14 hours”. How much did you get paid for that? “Over fifteen thousand dollars, but those were the old days of compensation”. While I never got the chance to see him operate, I shadowed him once. While the patients weren’t remarkably interesting and had pretty generic ailments, his bedside manner (i.e. doctor personable skills) was impeccable, and probably the best example of how to make patients feel comfortable that I’ve ever seen to this day.
The interesting stuff came when I’d ask him about stories from his surgery days:
On Christmas day in (1990 somethin), I got called in. A man had been in a car crash. Glass pierced his neck. His subclavian vein was lacerated and he was bleeding out. I couldn’t stop the bleeding. Veins and arteries behind the clavicle were cut, and I couldn’t get an angle on them. He was going to die, bleeding out on my operating table, and I was going to have to tell the family that I couldn’t save their loved one. I made a decision and snapped his clavicle bone in half and removed it. We slowed the damage, fixed the problem and stabilized him. My wife was upset with me, but I saved that man’s life on Christmas day.
On Christmas, most are with their families, tearing through gifts, eating, laughing, and loving. But he’d rather give than receive a gift, and on that day, he gave the gift of life. His selflessness and passion to healing inspired me. Through his tone and body language, I could feel his pride and how deeply important operating was to him. To this day, I believe I want to be a surgeon because of him. Sure, most trained surgeons could have saved him, but ever since, I’ve felt deeply compelled to do something that miraculous in my life. To see a family burst into tears of joy when they learn that their own son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, or whatever would not be departing from their lives any time soon.
He went to college for four years. His grades weren’t good enough to get into medical school, and judging by his personality I imagine he partook heavily in the 70’s collegiate festivities. So he went to graduate school for two years and got a masters. Off to medical school for four years. Five years of grueling general surgery residency. Two years of a vascular surgery fellowship. Then he practiced for about fifteen years by my estimate before hanging up the scrubs and the scalpel. As well as likely cutting his fat surgeon salary in half. That’s 17 years of higher level education and work to become something that he abandoned before working for 17 years after completing his training.
I had to know why. Bad back, typical surgeon burnout would seem to be the likely culprits, and I’m sure they played a part, but when I asked him about why he quit surgery a few years ago, I knew that I wasn’t getting the full story. He was too passionate. He put in too much time. He had too much love for his work to walk away so prematurely. But I never knew. I just wondered.
When I saw him occasionally, he imparted his usual wisdom. And as I grow older, I become more appreciative and more attentive when he speaks. As I become more and more acquainted with the medical field, I gain more and more respect and admiration for him accomplishing what he has. He did some training at one of the top hospitals in the world in vascular surgery as an underdog who couldn’t even get into medical school at first. He saved lives. Any time I was around him in public, whether it be at a high school football game, at a restaurant, or whatever, he’d always stop and talk people. He knew people everywhere. Sometimes he’d run into old patients who would thank him profusely for what he did for them. Sometimes he’d see random people who knew from school and spend a half hour talking to them. Every time, without fail. He was a figure in the community.
I wouldn’t put him up for most interesting man in the world, but he was an intriguing guy who everyone loved to be around. I knew him as the man who’d have a beer in hand, crack up at his own terrible jokes, constantly socialize with everyone around him, and occasionally see patients from time to time. Your every-day good guy. But I also envisioned him many years ago, in what would seem like an alternate universe, as a confident, sharp, authoritative expert in vascular surgery, scrubs drenched in blood while sewing up arteries, and seeing patients with that charismatically relaxing bedside manner.
But still, I always wondered why.
That was until a few weeks ago when my question was answered. Here at school, an instructor of mine gave a presentation, and the first Powerpoint slide had his credentials and contact info listed. I saw that he went to the same medical school as the surgeon. I looked up the year each of them respectively graduated, and they were in the same graduating class. Afterwards, I went up to the instructor, introduced myself, and asked him if he knew the surgeon. He lit up. “Yes, of course! You know him? How’s he doing? I haven’t seen him in years. I shouldn’t tell you, but he and I have some crazy stories from our time in med school together”.
We talked more and more as I learned that the surgeon was just as friendly and lovable in medical school as he is today. I told the doctor I was speaking to that he was doing clinical work and living the easy life. “Good for him! Smart man”. But I saw my glaring opportunity.
Why did he stop?
“Ah, you know, that’s a sad story”. My mind was racing. A sad story? Tell me. Now. “Well, he was a great surgeon, and I mean great. He was excellent…” I inquired further.
In the early 2000’s a woman was shot in the leg. Her femoral artery was ruptured, and The Surgeon got called in. He fixed her artery. They stopped the bleeding. They sutured her up.
Two days later, she died.
The artery opened up, she bled out, died. It happens. The family was a hysteric. They needed someone to blame. They blamed The Surgeon. They filed a lawsuit, which never went through because shit happens, you know? We’re all human, even the best make mistakes. Not only that, but apparently it was a resident working under him who sutured the artery back together. He didn’t even do it. It wasn’t his fault. It was ridiculous. People reassured him, but he blamed himself. He was never the same after that. It haunted him. He won’t say it, but that’s why he quit. He couldn’t live with the thought of losing that patient.
I was stunned. I fought with everything in me not to show any weakness as I felt my eyes moisten a little bit. And I’m not an emotional or dramatic person. I had learned the truth to the question I’d spent years trying solve. It was the final piece to The Surgeon’s puzzle. It just wasn’t the answer I wanted. All of those years of training. All of the gripping tales from the OR. All of the hundreds or thousands of patients he saved.
One death by his hands and it was over.
I don’t remember that Christmas, but the man in the car crash needed you more than we did.
I love you, dad.