Surgery, Metaphors, and the Story of Your Life

Most of us have a very limited understanding of the world in general. It’s not really our fault. Our perspective is pretty well limited to our immediate circle of family and friends, and of course you have only your direct sensory perception of the world to actually create the framework of your consciousness. There’s a big world out there, surrounded by an incomprehensibly huge universe, and we’re pretty much blips. Because our own experience through our lives is very limited, humans have traditionally told stories about their lives and the experiences of others. So many ancient texts and myths have been passed down to us today as oral tradition, or essentially campfire stories that were told for generations before we finally started writing stuff down, which turned out to be a pretty big deal. Nowadays we have the entirety of the internet to connect and share (and in some cases overshare) our life stories. We have even managed to make obscure stories from long ago available widely online, expanding our collective knowledge an incredible amount in a relatively short amount of time. My story on this blog is technically contributing to that collection of knowledge, though it is admittedly drastically limited by my unwillingness to proofread and the limited sphere of influence of both of my readers (hi Mom!).

I think stories are important. I should mention here that I have read an incredible number of books over the years, mostly because I am a huge nerd. I continue to read (at a much slower pace) even during surgical residency. I love the structure of a story, the ebbs and flows, climaxes, and suspense. I like to view my life as a story, as it gives me a framework to look at my family, friends, and goals in a larger setting that may be difficult for me to grasp otherwise.

Stories work especially well when discussing shared experiences. Laughter, fear, embarrassment, stress, relief, and grief are all common across mankind, and sharing stories about how those feelings have affected our lives draw us closer to each other. People generally like to tell stories because they usually like to talk about themselves, but listening to stories is almost as good. I like telling stories so much that I take time to write them down to people on the internet.

Some stories are difficult to share effectively if the experience is relatively unique to you personally. You can communicate the facts and the sequence of events, but you won’t be able to really convey the meaning of the story unless the person listening has had a similar enough experience. I have found this particularly true when it comes to incredibly stressful events such as natural disasters, traumatic events, and surgical residency.

It’s hard to tell stories about residency to people that aren’t residents. Most people don’t have any similar experiences to relate with, and so it’s tough to get that understanding across. This is why many residents only hang out with other residents (also no money, shockingly little spare time, and poor social skills). I recently had the opportunity to catch up with some old friends and this was made very clear as we shared about our lives. I worked more than double the amount that my friends (who have full time jobs) work each week, with far less compensation, WAY fewer benefits, and a much more hostile work environment. It was actually a little depressing as I realized how sad my life was. I found myself saying things like “I can usually do my laundry” and “I’ve been sleeping in until 5am or so lately”. I can still tell funny stories about crazy people, or gross stories about traumas, but it’s tough to actually relate with how I get through my life. I don’t get off at 5, take a lunch break, or even have my own chair. I do have a small locker all to myself, which I think is pretty great.

I really like metaphors. I think they are useful both for teaching and for communicating with others who may have some things in common with you, but not necessarily the experience you are discussing. I have an attending surgeon who overuses metaphors. He will start teaching with a sports metaphor, switch to fishing, then make a pop culture reference from 30 years ago to end it, and I can’t keep up with all that. Medical students definitely don’t, but they will laugh at his jokes, which are terrible. His metaphors are even worse, there needs to be some similarities in your metaphors for them to work.

I like to compare anatomy to cities. Surgeons love anatomy. Every little thing in the body has a name, a function, and variants to know. Then add in the insertions, origins, innervation, vascular supply….it really adds up. Anatomy is often the first traumatic experience medical students have in their schooling. Though it may cause PTSD in medicine residents, it’s a working language and constant learning challenge in surgery residents.

Learning surgical anatomy is like learning to drive around a new city. You can look at maps and get a good idea of the layout of the city, but once you get there you need to start driving and see signs to confirm that Main Street is actually Main Street. Experienced surgeons are essentially the cabbies of the city, having spent years making their living driving on every single block, watching accidents happen (and causing a few), taking alternate routes for traffic, and knowing how time of day affects traffic flow. Medical students don’t know simple things because they are still getting their bearings, they still need to drive down Main Street and see the big attractions.

 

Hong_Kong_Cedric009-1500x792

This is Hong Kong, by the way.

Surgery residency is a strange beast, but I think it has a lot of similarities with baseball. Both are long seasons or careers that require endurance and daily performance. In baseball you can strike out with the bases loaded in one inning, then hit a game winning home run the next at bat. You can play extremely well and the team will lose, then vice versa the next day. No matter how well or poorly you are playing, there is always your next at bat, the next inning, the next game, and you have to continually prepare yourself to perform at your best when that time comes.

Baseball Infield Chalk Line

In the same way, surgery is tough business. Patients live and patients die. The hours are long, and the stress is real. The stress comes in different intensities, like a fire. Each morning there is the distant, soft, constant burn on the way to work. “I don’t want to hurt anyone today. I hope I can help at least one of my patients. How can I be my best?” Then there’s the anxiety when you aren’t at the hospital, but you know have a huge case the next day, or a sick patient back in the ICU. There’s the intense heat and focus in critical situations, when everything is beeping and you are the first to respond to a code, or have the MAC blade in hand to intubate a patient. Everything is on the line, and you’re up to bat. No games to win or lose, but the lives of others are at stake. Finally, there’s the huge weight of fatigue when you walk into the hospital for your 18th shift in a row, or walking out late at night knowing you’ll be back early the next morning.  Batter up.

The story of general surgery is not good. 20% attrition in residency. Huge egos competing for operating room time and influence, each person convinced in their own skill and decision making. A long, antiquated tradition of training surgeons by breaking down medical school graduates and molding the pieces into surgeons. That story is changing very, very slowly, but is still the reality for surgery residents all over the country today, tomorrow, and the next day for the remainder of our training.

If our lives are stories, each of our stories is made up of layers. Starting broadly, there are the events of our lives, or the circumstances that we either create of find ourselves in without our doing. Next, there is our conscious interpretation of those events and their effect on our lives. Separate from that are the actions we take and the decisions we make.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the internal story that you tell yourself about what is happening in your life and how you are going to respond to it. We all have inner voices, or an inner dialogue, and I think that voice is the single most important factor that drives who you are as a person. That inner voice is you, or at least as close as anything can be to you as a person. Whatever you are doing, or whoever you want to be, that voice is going to get you there. It’s remarkable how much I can affect my own day and my own well being despite the circumstances of the day, and that is the single most important thing I have learned in residency.

Intern year has been ROUGH, and there have been life circumstances that have made it more difficult as well, but it hasn’t changed who I am.  The challenge will be to maintain this for the next few years of training without burning out. I’ll probably write about that if it happens, but I hope to just keep telling you all funny stories and letting you know what’s on my mind instead.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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