In Harm’s Way, the Tradition and Legacy of Medicine

 “There isn’t any such thing as an ordinary life.” – Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Heroes are ordinary people who make themselves extraordinary.”Gerard Way

Clouds, Sunset after winter storm, Falmouth, MA

Clouds, Sunset after winter storm, Falmouth, MA

My colleague, Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, is currently on leave from his academic anesthesia practice as well as from his post as Speaker of the House of Delegates for the Massachusetts Medical Society to serve as Lt. Commander Jesse Ehrenfeld, Combat Anesthesiologist in Kandahar, Afghanistan. We all appreciate the sacrifice he is making, putting himself at risk and in harm’s way.

This sacrifice is part of the great tradition of medicine, a tradition that compels physicians into war zones to take care of the injured. It is the same tradition that has us traveling to help treat diseases for which we may not have a cure or even a name yet, or into areas near and far ravaged by natural disasters.

As physicians we imagine that the risks we take are contained in far-flung locations or defined by the time it takes to start the recovery from disaster. Taking these risks is part of our  commitment and calling, our responsibility. These are not every day, ordinary events and circumstances. They are extraordinary, and we rise to those challenges, to be extraordinary ourselves to take care of them. Then life returns to normal.

But what about yesterday, an ordinary crisp sunny winter day in Boston? When at about 11 a.m. a man entered the cardiothoracic clinic at the revered Brigham and Women’s Hospital and  fatally shot surgeon Dr. Michael J. Davidson  before taking his own life. The patients, the doctors, the nurses and staff in the hospital and clinics were in the throes of an ordinary day, no grand events planned in the city, no special holiday.

In short, it was — or should have been — an unremarkable day. 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

In a Blink: ‘The Diagnosis Is Cancer’

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” -Joan Didion

“Maybe that’s what life is…a wink of the eye and winking stars.” -Jack Kerouac


Sunrise, Plum Island/Newbury, Massachusetts (November 2011)

Life changes in a blink. A misstep, an accident, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The seconds and even microseconds seem an eternity. Nothing will ever be the same from that moment. Everything that happens in that instant, flash, blink,  changes the whole world, your whole world, and you can never go back.

A few weeks ago I was in an automobile accident, my friend was driving. It was on a highway, at speed, involving two other cars besides ours. Amazingly, no one was hurt (I assume this, since the culprit who caused the wreck kept right on going and never stopped). The cars were damaged, my friend’s car took the worst of it. It is in the shop so that it can be fixed up, as good as new. All of this happened in a blink, an instant. Too fast to even register what was happening. Our plans for the day were shattered. My friend will be dealing with this for months, by the time all the repairs are done, bills paid, insurance adjusted. But cars can be fixed, as good as new. This is what got me thinking.

Injury, accidents and trauma, illness represent a nearly universal experience. No one is spared, Continue reading