Primum non nocere. Above all, do no harm.
This is the most vital, and the most quoted line of the Hippocratic Oath. When Hippocrates, the Greek physician, who is considered the father of medicine wrote the oath all those centuries ago, medicine was not what it is today, in terms of technology, and the amplified power of healing. What lay at its heart though, has remained unchanged; to quote from the modern version of the Oath, this is: “I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.”
Being a surgeon is a full-time job, which goes beyond 24/7, and 365. You never know when you are needed to save a life. You never know when an emergency occurs. And you need to be ready for it. There are no half-measures. There are no phone-ins. And this is both what makes the job utterly rewarding, and completely demanding. From the moment a patient walks into your office, you are responsible for their health for the rest of their lives. Holidays get interrupted; you fly back form vacations; walk out of parties at a minute’s notice, and none of this feels like it’s an imposition.
The key is to bring the focus you apply to your professional life, to your personal life, too. No matter what the demands on your time are, if you decide to structure it that way, you will find that everything becomes easier. The most successful surgeons are the ones who cultivate their inner lives with as much care and attention as they bring to their work. Many of us are voracious readers, and most of us love listening to music; travel; photography; film; art – the more we engage our senses in these pursuits, the more it relaxes, and enriches us. Yes, we may have less time to take off, or we’re called out of family gatherings, but there’s no need to feel sorry for ourselves.
Because to a patient who is going to undergo surgery, or has just undergone one, their life is literally in your hands. No-one can comfort them as much as you can. No-one can answer the family’s questions better, and put their worries to rest. Engaging with a patient and his or her caretakers is imperative to the work of a surgeon. If you are not really connected with the patient, you may miss subtle signs that could be crucial to the treatment. And, most importantly, they will not feel a 100 per cent safe in your care. Without that connection, procedures and consultations are just transactional.
At CODS, this is why we have a culture of caring, which creates a support system, not just for patients, but for the staff, too. Everyone from the nutritionist, to the surgeons is accessible, to answer all kinds of queries, without considering them silly or flippant. (Sometimes, these questions can be as simple as – “Can I get a manicure a week after surgery?” It might sound irrelevant, but it is not. Every question needs an answer.)
With bariatric surgery, which is especially complicated in a psycho-social context, being there for the patient is even more vital. There are midnight calls you need to answer. There are fears, and questions that need to be heard, and dealt with in order to calm the patient’s mind, and help them feel better. As a surgeon, you walk a fine line between being the person in charge, and being the person that the patient and their family and friends can turn to for help, and counsel. With the right support system – like the one that has been built up at CODS – a surgeon needs to encourage, and motivate the patient to get through the surgery, and then maintain the lifestyle needed to stay healthy.
What is this like for a surgeon? That’s what we’re going to tell you, in this new series on our blog.