My fellow tweeting-surgeon-friend, ENT surgeon Dr Eric Levi, tweeted these two thought provoking messages today.
There were lots of replies. A few identified with the fact that medicine is not ‘just a job’ but a vocation, a calling and defines who we are. Some talked about the importance of having hobbies outside of medicine. Others talked about leaving medicine and how scary that can be. It seems that Dr Levi hit a sore spot. He certainly did for me.
I like to think that in my daily dealings with life’s big moments such as death, survival, fear, anger and caring for another human that I have learned what is really important in life. I have. I know that a wife desperately wants to see her husband get better after a long hospital stay. I know the raw emotion when a mother passes away. I know the sound of elation, relief and thankfulness when things have gone well. Yet, in putting that into practice, like many of my colleagues, I have fallen short of the mark.
Last year, I read the phenomenal book by neurosurgeon Dr Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air. Paul was just about to complete his neurosurgical residency when at the young age of 35, he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. Paul wrote the book as he battled this horrendous disease which ultimately took his life. I read it as a doctor who deal with lung cancer but also as a doctor who like Paul, had given up so much to pursue this ‘calling’.
As I read about Paul’s life and career, I found it echoed my own and that of many of my colleagues and friends. Upon diagnosis, he wanted to get back to work until the realisation dawned upon him that life was not the many hours spent in the operating theatres. While I was so sad that this young man lost his life to an aggressive cancer, what also saddened me was that why had it taken such a crisis to cultivate appreciation for what truly matters?
I have struggled with my own identity as a surgeon first and everything else second. One thing I can say without hesitation is that is the wrong way around. Surgery is indeed a vocation. Medicine is a calling. It is not something you do when you have luke warm feelings about it. It is not however, all of who I am. It is not even the most important part of who I am nor of my life.
Recently, a patient about to undergo a major cardiac operation had a wedding in the hospital. It was love that mattered. And that is exactly what matters and defines us, not our occupations. It is the love of your spouse, family, children and friends that is who you are. It is the things you love to do with your time whether that be watching the sun rise, long runs on the weekend or a nice glass of red wine that matter. For all the times I got my priorities and identity backwards, I am sorry. I am sorry for those who fell down the ranking and I am sorry for myself.
I do look like a surgeon and I am a surgeon. A surgeon though, is not all that I am nor all that I want to be. I want other facets to my career and I want the important people and experiences in my life. I want to cultivate a life that is not made up of sutures and blood and ward rounds. And I want to share that life with the people who mean the most to me.
So to answer Eric’s proposition, who would we be if our careers were taken or perhaps freely given? We would be just fine.