Like a Surgeon: About That Surgical Stereotype

“A good surgeon also has to have compassion and humanity, and not be someone who is arrogant and difficult to deal with.” Dr. Thomas J. Russel (former Executive Director of the American College of Surgeons, New York Times interview

“Like a Surgeon” – Weird Al Yankovic


Operating, like a surgeon.

I hear the comments frequently; in fact, I hear them all the time. At work I hear them from staff, from patients — even from non-surgical colleagues. I hear them away from work, when meeting new people who find out that I am a physician and a surgeon. I think many women surgeons hear the same:

       “You’re not like a surgeon. You’re not like other surgeons.”

The comments tend to run along the same lines. You don’t look like a surgeon. You don’t act like a surgeon. You’re too nice, too caring, too compassionate, too thoughtful, too communicative (sometimes, too pretty). Most of the time, the comments are offered as compliments. They are proffered in a context attempting to make me feel welcomed and appreciated.

I understand these comments are meant as compliments, but what do they say about surgeons? And even more specifically, about women who are surgeons?

We all have stereotypes.  They are a shortcut we all use to help us understand the people and world around us, especially the unfamiliar. But the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and people and groups evolve and change. Stereotypes are mired in ignorance and misinformation, and they help us to resist that change. At that point they do not serve any purpose, and in fact, harm rather than help.

These comments and compliments speak to the stereotypes of who we think our doctors are, what surgeons are like, speaking volumes about the image of surgeons. It is an image as unfair to men as it is to women. Continue reading

The Fragile Surgeon: A Fear for the Heart of the Profession

“You are human and fallible.” -Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

“Alas, the frailty is to blame, not me – for such as we are made of, such we be…” -William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

“Sha-doo-bee, Shattered…” -Mick Jagger, “Shattered”, The Rolling Stones, Some Girls (1978)

"Heirloom", deconstructed/cut china - Elizabeth Alexander, artist

“Heirloom”, cut china,                artist, Elizabeth Alexander

It seems incongruent, an oxymoron, even slightly disloyal, to refer to surgeons as fragile. Preposterous.

The Image of the Surgeon is synonymous with strength. Surgeons are stereotypically charismatic, commanding, confident, even arrogant. Strong minds, strong bodies, strong wills. Leaders, especially in the operating room; they even act that way in other healthcare teams and committees, even if it is not their official role. Surgeons endure long hours, grueling surgeries, all in addition to full office and clinic loads, and inpatient hospital census numbers on par with their non-surgical colleagues. It is intellectually, physically, and emotionally challenging work. Surgeons seem to relish it, thrive on it.

This is exactly why surgeons are so fragile. All of them.

I had an epiphany at the end my 4th year of medical school, when we were in small group seminars dealing with aspects of life beyond graduation. I don’t even recall what that session was about. But I remember clearly that it struck me quite suddenly exactly how physical my chosen field of surgery really was. That, unlike my friends and classmates who were heading towards other fields, my ability to do my job as a surgeon was going to depend not just on my will and intellect, but on sheer physicality and functioning senses.

A surgeon has to be able to stand at the operating table; both hands and arms need to function. Senses have to work — vision, hearing, speech, touch. Unfortunately, smell too. (I wish I had known about smell, although it probably would not have deterred me, just prepared me.) I realized it is a very, very physical job. Losing the function of any one sense or limb could alter the ability to operate, the ability to be a surgeon. Internists can still practice from wheelchairs or with accommodation for myriad physical or sensory impairments. Other specialties that perform procedures retain their full professional identity and ability to continue in those fields, even with limited ability or inability to perform.

But, what is a surgeon who doesn’t operate? Continue reading