SOMY (Stories of My Youth) Series: These are just some of the people and experiences that made me who I am today. Yegor was an IMG. An International Medical Graduate. These are doctors who have been trained and/or worked as … Continue reading
People write passionately about discrimination in Medicine: sexism, racism and even fattism (yes, there is such a word, I checked). Today, I want to talk about Ageism.
Ageism = Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age. (Oxford Dictionary)
Like all forms of discrimination, it goes both ways. There is ageism from the doctors to the patient, and then there is ageism from the patient to the doctors. The latter is the cause of my ongoing angst.
When am I going to see the real doctor?
This is actually something I get on a regular basis, usually after spending 45 minutes with them, taking a history, examining, diagnosing and explaining their treatment options. I suppose I should really consider it as a compliment. I do know I look young for my age. I know I don’t look like I am about to turn 40 (*sigh*). This can be attributed to both my ethnic background, but also to the fact that I don’t smoker nor spend much time in the sun (I do, however, sport a very unattractive sallow chronic ‘fluorescent tan’.) Yes, I do look after myself, but despite being a plastic surgeon, I have yet found a colleague trusty-worthy enough to stick needles or scalpels in me, and I am definitely too chicken to do it to myself in front of the mirror (unlike some of my colleagues – *winkwink nudgenudge*). So, no, my youthful appearance is not chemically or surgically enhanced, all I can blame it on is my genes.
So, why, you ask, am I complaining about looking young? Well, here’s a list of reasons why my age-inappropriate appearance doesn’t exactly make my job easier.
I don’t mind having someone young for the cough and colds, but can I please have someone older for the serious stuff?
I am not having someone fresh out of medical school operating on me.
You are too young to understand my problems
I need someone who are older and know what they are doing.
You look younger than my granddaughter, how old are you?
I am not being judgemental, but you are too young, I want someone who’s competent.
I have a very complex problem, I need someone with a little bit more experience.
The standards for the young graduates nowadays are not like the good old days, I want an older doctor who has been through the real training.
I want a doctor who is at least my age.
Now, what in the world makes you think you have the right to ask for my age? You are saying it isn’t being judgemental. But it is. You are judging my capabilities as a doctor by my age.
These patients feel that because of my age, I lack experience and should only treat the ‘easy’ stuff. There are two incorrect assumptions here. Firstly, the inferred ‘lack of experience’ by my age. Most people don’t realise that to become surgeon, one has to finish medical school, gain basic medical experience working as a junior doctor before being selected via a rigorous process to become a trainee in surgery. The surgical training program can range from 3 to 7 years, depending on the actual specialty, any sub-specialisation training within that specialty, and any additional overseas training to gain a wider perspective. At the end of which, one has to go through a series of very stringent assessments before a specialist qualification can be granted. I was at least 10 years out of medical school before I became a fully-qualified specialist surgeon. All I can say is, if 10 years of working and training (and not forgetting the 6 years of medical school before that) doesn’t constitute ‘enough experience’, and my qualification ain’t worth shit to you, then go ahead and set your own definition of ‘experience’.
Secondly, the patient’s assumption what ailments are ‘easy’ to treat and what aren’t, may not exactly correlate to true clinical relevance. A cough and cold may be easy to treat, but it may also be a manifestation of something more sinister. I would never presume a cough and cold as exactly that – I am a plastic surgeon after all – I always refer the patient back to their Family Doctor, as that is something those doctors would have more knowledge of. Patients who infer that they know what is ‘easy’ and what is not, show not only a total lack of awareness for the complexity of medicine, but also their disrespect for their doctor’s judgement. What may appear to be ‘easy’ may just be a harbinger for an underlying problem which is very difficult to treat, or it may just be the tip of the iceberg where surgical complexity is concerned. One of the most critical aspect during our training is to be able to recognise when we are out of our depth. If your doctor admits to needing a second opinion or assistance of another specialist, you should be grateful that you have found someone who will not take risks with your health.
People think that lack of ‘life-experience’ due to age is a deterrent to being a good doctor who could understand the issues of the ‘older’ population. This myth is easily busted when I look around at my colleagues. Which one of us isn’t jaded by what we have seen during our careers? We have seen it all. Birth, Life, Death, Disability, Misfortune, Pain, Suffering, Drug Use, Crimes, Abuse, Deviants, Perverts, the Insane, Murderers, Liars, Malingerers, Sadness, Grief, Anger, the list goes on. Some of the things we see and the frequency in which we see them, gives us multiple life-times of the so-called ‘life-experiences’. Sure, we may not have experienced any of these ourselves personally, but sometimes watching somebody we care for going through it and feeling utterly helpless can be just as real to us as the person who is experiencing it. Many of us view some of our patient’s misfortune as personal failures, and they take their toll on our own mentality.
Each specialty also has their demographic of patients; to assume that we have no inkling to a patient’s particular age-related issues is really quite ignorant. Most of my patients with skin cancers are elderly; I understand they may have issues getting to and from hospitals, care at home and simple matters such as attending appointments for dressings. We organise nursing home-visits for their dressings, and sometimes, arrange suitable surgery dates so that their family can take time off work to care for them. Most of my breast cancer patients have young children. We fit their appointments around school pick-ups and their surgeries out of school holidays so they can spend as much with their children as possible. Doctors are not unaware of our patient’s personal situations; we are not blind to possible social issues surrounding health problems. We, ourselves, have elderly parents, young nieces and nephews, friends outside of medicine and older/younger siblings. Often when we meet new patients, if they are not of similar age or demographics as ourselves, we can still relate them as one of our own relatives or friends.
So you think we don’t have enough ‘life-experiences’? Well, tell me, have you ever had to listen to a mother’s heart-breaking sobs in the middle of the night while she is sitting next to her dying 3-year-old baby? Have you ever had to spend two hours stitching up a battered wife’s mangled face and then watch her leave with her husband because she refused to report him despite your best efforts in counselling her? Have you ever stood in a room, watching a whole family saying goodbye to a man dying, while you are busily pumping him full of morphine because you know there’s nothing else you could do for him? Have you carefully removed a brain tumour from a patient who only hours before, had a psychotic episode and scratched, punched and spat at you? I could go on, but did you just say you were abused as a child? I have lost count of the number of child-abuse victims I have seen, but I understand everyone’s story is different. A different variation of the same……
Education has changed dramatically over the years, and this has definitely influenced Medical Schools. Standards are different, and they are different for a reason. The emphasis in medical training has changed, from purely scientific rote-learning to a more holistic clinical approach. Yes, I may have bitched and moaned about some of these changes as a teacher, but I can see why these changes needed to happen. To be honest, I don’t envy the students and trainees nowadays, an explosion in medical knowledge and technology over the last two decades has added a phenomenal amount into their core curriculum. Some of which I have yet to catch up with because it bears no relevance to my current sub-specialty. When I attended medical school, notes were written on paper, lab results were given over dial phones (yep, I am that ancient), X-rays were on films and put up on light-boxes, blood pressures were taken manually, pulses were counted with a pocket watch, surgical drills and saws were hand driven (not powered by electricity or gas). Back then, the list of diseases I needed to exclude for any presentation could be written on half a page, the number of tests I needed to do could be counted one hand and the number of ways I could treat it could barely fill a chapter in a textbook. Things are so different now, possibilities in Medicine are endless. Medical education nowadays place importance on basic core knowledge so that a graduate is not expected to know everything, but rather, to be able to pick out and apply relevant components of their knowledge to clinical situations. Most importantly, they need to know how to approach the problems and where to source the information they require. The point of today’s schooling is to generate a doctor that thinks, rather than one that relies on a checklist. So give your young doctor a chance, you might be surprised, he/she may think of another approach to your chronic problem. Something that is different to the same old thing which hasn’t been working for you.
We all know that we are getting old when we think everyone else is looking younger, especially when we see our pilots boarding the same plane we are travelling on. Commercial pilots start their careers in their late 20’s and to a lot of us think they are just kids, really. They are responsible for hundreds of lives for hours, but their age does not reflect their capabilities in getting all of us to the correct destination, safely. Why? Because of their qualifications. No airline would put a pilot at the helm of a plane unless he/she has passed all the requirements and assessments, whether they are young or old. In fact, once the pilots have reached a certain age, they have to be re-assessed for their ‘fitness’ to fly.
Some patients actually admitted to coming to me because their previous surgeon was getting old and I looked young (if only they knew!). Some do so in the hope that I have more up-to-date knowledge on new techniques, new technology or new approaches to their chronic problem. Some change surgeons because they have become concerned as their previous surgeons are deemed to be ‘too old’ to still be operating (ageism in the opposite spectrum), whilst some disliked the more paternalistic approach and ‘old-school’ attitude of their previous older surgeons.
Some older surgeons nearing their retirement have insight into their decreasing capabilities. Their eyes aren’t as sharp anymore, their hands have started to tremor, or they are now on several heart medications and struggle to cope with long cases. They cut down on the number of cases they take on as well as limit the type of operations they do. Many become surgical assistants to their younger counterparts. When I first started, I had one of the retiring Professors of Surgery as my regular assistant. It took a long time for me to adjust to giving him orders and correcting him when he is not doing something right. The nursing staff used to giggle when I would say, ‘Would you mind sewing that drain in for me, Sir?’ But it was a very happy arrangement. Prof could still get his hands dirty without the stresses and responsibilities of a surgeon, at the same time, I had instant access to any advice I needed. Not to mention the stories he used to tell as we were operating, those were gems to learn from. He would always tell me that he was not there to judge my competence, but to be my assistant for procedures I was more than capable of doing on my own.
So next time you meet a young doctor, don’t ask them how old they are, ask them what their qualifications are. And if they are just learning, give them the benefit of the doubt, because you could contribute so much to their education and experience by sharing yours with them. You never know, when your doctor retires, and when you are much older, they will be the ones in their prime, in charge of your health.
* Disclaimer: Please do not take this blog as a disrespectful post to generations of surgeons before myself; I fully acknowledge the fact that their expertise could not be surpassed by myself. I am deeply appreciative of their willingness to share with me all that they know, as well as their unfailing support to me as a fellow surgeon, despite my age.
Am I getting old? Am I becoming a prude? Am I behind in the fashion trends? Or am I just jealous? I am totally appalled at the attire of the female interns and medical students these days because I have had enough of skimpy dresses, mini-skirts and porn-star platform stilettos in my clinic and ward rounds. I think it is time for me to be a bitchy old female surgeon and write a fashion rule book for my young novices.
Rule # 1 Cover up
There are many reasons why short skirts and low cut tops are just not very practical when you are a doctor. Basically, there is a lot of bending over to do. In clinics, when you have to examine patients, you are constantly bending over. Now, there’s nothing more humiliating than having your undies on display or having your boobs pop out when you are crouched down to look into a patient’s throat. On the ward, when you are taking blood or putting IV cannulae in, again, you are flexing those hips and putting your bum into the air. Don’t forget, usually there’s somebody right behind you, either it be the person accompanying the patient, another doctor, a nurse or even one of your colleagues to enjoy the view of your derrière hanging out under the hems. As for those puppies in front, it is awfully distracting for everyone concerned not to stare at the deep canyons of your v-neck, or the shadows behind an unbuttoned blouse. Imagination of lies beyond those valleys has an uncanny ability to lure one’s attention. Similarly if you are sitting at the desk, short skirts ride up, and a crotch on view is particularly attention-seeking. If you cross your legs to avoid that scenario, the skirt will move up more, displaying the milky-white flesh of your naked thighs, which have a visually enticing power of their own. You want your patient to actually listen to what you are saying? It would be best if you redirect their captivated interest away from your exposed flesh.
So girls, button up, cover up and let those hems down. You don’t want to give your elderly patients a heart attack or the disinhibited psychiatric client a stiffy. Don’t be surprised if one of the 90-year-old’s in the Dementia ward sneaks his hand up your backside, or a 30-year-old in the trauma unit talk to your boobs. The only place where you are safe to prance around half-naked is in the intensive care unit, where the majority of your patients are unconscious.
Oh, and see-through clothing does not equate to covering up, especially when you wear hot pink lacy bras and thongs under a thin white dress. That’s called beach-wear.
Rule #2 Lycra is not attractive
What is the story these days with squeezing your body into clothes two sizes too small a-la-Kardashian style? Trust me, you can look amazing in fitted, tailored clothing that allows you room to move without having to suck it all in with a rigid sheath that makes you look like the Michelin man when you bend over (see? there’s the bending over again).
Tight clothing doesn’t let you move. You would be surprised at some of the positions you may have to be in when you are a doctor. Contortionists only have to hold a position, but doctors not only have to coil into positions that require expertise in a game of twister, but also perform medical feats at the same time. I had to dress a patient’s foot wound once, squatting on the floor with my head upside down. If you are ever involved in chest compressions on a patient who has collapsed on the floor, those tube skirts may not hold when you kneel over the patient with your legs apart, and the bum-hugging pants may split if you have to hunker down to secure an airway.
Also – trust me on this one – tight clothing does not constitute covering up. It can be rather revealing in faithfully outlining certain parts of your anatomy; visible thong lines, beaming headlights and camel toes are just a few things that come to mind; all of which are seriously distracting in life-and-death conversations.
And if you really think that tight clothing flatters your figure, the names whispered behind your back are usually not as complimentary. Health workers love to give each other nicknames, and I really don’t think you would want to be stuck with Dr Bootylicious in a place where you may want to advance your career in the future.
Rule #3 Wear shoes that will save your feet and your patient’s lives
Tottering on 10 inch heels on a surgical ward round is not attractive, especially when you are trying to balance files, clipboards, gloves and your phone. Unlike physician rounds, surgeons don’t round with file-trolleys that you can lean on, and we also walk really fast, as most of us have to get to the operating theatre or clinic by 8am. So if you can’t keep up in those ridiculous shoes, no one will be slowing down for you.
A survey was done to show that 15-20km was the average distance an intern or resident has to walk during a working day. You will soon learn that one of your jobs is being able to be at 3 places at the same time. When they build hospitals, they usually try to put all the surgical clinics, preadmission clinics, surgical wards, and the operating theatres as far away from each other as possible. They also put in ultra-slow lifts that fits no more than 10 people, so you will find yourself racing up and down the stairs out of necessity. The moral of the story, wear shoes that will save your feet, because you still have a long long long way to walk for the rest of your medical career.
Wear something covered. I know some men have feet fetish and find pedicures irresistible, but having glamorous open sandals will not protect your pretty toes. Imagine walking around with vomit between your toes all day or even slipping on pee as you walk. As doctor, you will also be handling a lot of sharps, and having one of your tootsies stabbed with a fallen needle or nail ripped off by a drug trolley may just make it a rather bad day at work that you could do without.
Most of all, if there is a Code Blue (cardiac arrest), you need to run. Murphy’s Law dictates that the area where your patient has collapsed would be the furthermost place from where you are when it goes off and none of the lifts will be working. So, if you are teetering on your heels, you might as well start making your way straight to the morgue. Because by the time you have staggered down there in your stilettos, the patient would have been declared dead and bundled up into a trolley on his way for a coroner’s review.
Rule #4 Hospital lighting is not kind to heavy makeup
Unlike the romantic, flattering illumination of disco and restaurants, the hospital is brightly lit night and day. Hospital fluorescent bulbs do not give a warm soft glow; instead, they paint your skin in a starkly pale blue shade. It is exceptional for clear vision when one is perusing pages and pages of patient charts and examining every abnormality on a patient’s body. It is also particularly revealing for showing up every imperfection of your skin and each granule of make-up. The thicker you lay it on, the harsher it looks, until those dark eye-shadows and red lipsticks become a portrait of Alice Cooper.
The other thing you will learn is that lengthy days are detrimental to your facial palette. What may begin as seductive thick mascara on eyelashes and carefully layered blue shadows on eyelids will become the makings of a vacant racoon stare after 48 hours on-call. The blush would make its way down from the cheekbones to your nose, so you’ll look like you have a runny nose. While the lipstick will either be completely chewed off or will have migrated onto your teeth. Half of your powder and foundation would have rubbed off, so your forehead will be particularly shiny in the brilliant lighting. Overall, the picture becomes rather unappealing even in a horror movie.
Rule #5 There is a reason why we got rid of white coats
White is a colour reserved for dinners without Spaghetti Bolognese and Chilli Crab. White is suitable if you don’t plan to land on the ground while playing tennis, and it is definitely suitable for your wedding unless you have very clumsy relatives.
If you wear white to the hospital, be prepared for it to be used as a virginal canvas for body-fluid-art. Most colours of organic liquids go very well with white. Poo-brown is an earthy contrast to a pale background, although there can be unpredictability to the exact shade and texture depending on the source. While blood-red is always visually stunning when splashed generously, although the colour does turn coppery if left for long periods. Sputum-Green has just enough shade to make a warm pastel base whereas bile from projectile vomiting tends to veer towards turquoise; Pus-yellow can be used to enhance the warm tone of the overall canvas. The sanguine stain of Urine-gold can be a bit tricky to see on white, but sometimes when there is bleeding in the bladder, hues of Haematuria-rosé are a little bit more noticeable. These are often complimented by regular ink-blots made by the leaking pen that never leaves your hand. The beauty of this art-work is that it is eternal; no amount of scrubbing, baking soda, washing powder or dry cleaning will completely removed these physical mementos of how you acquired them.
Rule #6 More bling, more bugs
I do understand that these days, fashion is all about accessories. Style is almost entirely judged on how people decorate their outfits, rather than the actual garbs. Well, all I can say that you will just have to accept that doctors cannot be part of the current ‘trend’.
Some hospitals have banned ties for men – as it was found to be the main source of cross-contamination between patients. It was not uncommon to see these ties taking a swipe at patient’s groins, or a dip into a pus-filled wound. Nurses can’t wear bangles, bracelets, and rings, because no amount of hand washing will disinfect these as potential bacterial-carrying vehicles.
So, young female doctors and students, I would advise that you leave your blings, danglies, chains and scarves at home – unless you like being a free taxi for bacteria, or keen to bring your work home, literally.
Rule #7 You are not auditioning for a Shampoo commercial
Meredith Grey drives me nuts. I just don’t understand how anyone could see what they are doing with that mousy hair floating around her face constantly. You might think flicking those luxurious locks on ward rounds is eye-catching, until you accidentally smack it into your senior registrar’s face. Long hair has a lot of perils in hospitals. Like the tie, it can take a dunk into cavities where you may not want it to go. You could inadvertently tickle your patient when you are bending over the patient (there it is again!). It could get caught on bed rails, IV poles, monitoring lines and plaster saws (yep, seen that happen). When you are doing a procedure, hours of preparing a sterile field can be instantly swept away with your hair. Bangs and hair in the eyes can also be detrimental to your vision, which may not be so helpful when you are placing fine stitches or handling fragile body parts.
Tie those loose alluring locks away from your face, ladies – you may find it disadvantageous to your modelling career, but at least it will save your day job.
Now I know these rules are harsh, and I am not aversed keeping up with what’s in vogue. I am as much into the latest trends as the next fashion-conscious female. I am not advocating dressing-down either, as crack-showing skater jeans and ripped off-shoulder T shirts are not exactly confidence-inducing attire for the sick and injured. There are ways to look beautiful without being inappropriate, it is about retaining your individuality in the role you have picked to play in society. You have chosen to become a doctor, not a model, not a tart, and definitely not a hooker.
Just remember, the hospital is not a night-club. You are not going on a date (and if you are, it is rather sad you are having it in a hospital, so get a life!), neither are you selling your ‘wares’, and advertising your ‘goods’. If you are dressing up to snare a rich doctor husband, you would be setting your trap for the wrong kind of men. There are plenty of playboys in the medical faculty, as there is definitely no shortage of male doctors who think they are God’s gift to women. These ‘hot’ charismatic egomaniacs are more interested in the junk in your trunk and the boobies in your bra than your personality. They are more concerned in accumulating notches on their belts, and having available booty-calls on speed-dial, than learning about your aspirations. You would be mistaken if you think by attracting their attention, they will be willing to marry you/help you get the job you want/get you out of trouble/recommend you for a promotion.
I am not suggesting that we should masculinise our appearance, but there are ways of being feminine without flaunting ‘sexuality’, and being gorgeous without over-embellishment. Dressing elegantly in appropriate attire will go a long way to instil confidence in your patients. Your seniors will take you seriously and be more than willing to share their knowledge with you. It will not upset the nurses (who are stuck in unflattering uniforms with colours that make them look like tampon packages), and draw attention away from those higher up the ladder than yourself. And believe it or not, professional dressing will actually make you sound smarter than you really are. You want the men to stop ogling at you; you want them to look at you in awe.
So, Ladies, save your reputation, your career, your feet and your patient’s lives. Next time you pick your apparel for work, channel classics such as Jackie Onassis, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.
Ok. I am an old and cranky surgeon. And this post is going to make me sound positively ancient. It starts off with
When I was a medical student……
Is it just me, or are the medical students these days getting more brazen, opinionated and full of self-importance?
I used to love clinical teaching. Our students used to turn up early on consultant ward rounds, some with prepared case studies of patients on the ward, and helped out our residents and interns with preparations of the round. In the operating room, they used to stand quietly at the head of the patient, peering over the anaesthetic drape and asked intelligent questions. Questions that showed they had checked what was on the list and read about it the night before. They stayed until the case was finished, whether it would be 6pm or 1am. They were eager to scrub in if they were offered the chance and absorbed information like sponges.
Nowadays, they turn up on the ward round at the same time as me, with no idea of the patients on the ward, nor their names and procedures, let alone their histories. The interns and residents struggle with charts, dressings and memorising lab results for each patient, whilst the students look on with vacant smiles, hands firmly tucked into their pockets.
When I was a medical student, I used to arrive an hour before my consultant, print out a patient list, and write out all lab results next to their names for the intern. I would then put all the charts onto a trolley, opened to the latest page, and stamp in the date, ready for the round. While the round is happening, I would carry a box of gloves so that the senior doctors can open the dressings, and be the official scribe in the notes while decisions are made and patient discussed. I would hand the latest lab results to my intern and make sure he/she was aware of any abnormalities. I never spoke unless spoken to. My role was to be helpful to the junior staff and be a thirsty sponge to absorb all the information bantered around my head.
Over the last few years, something changed in our medical students. I don’t know why these young minds are being poisoned, but I sure would like to correct whatever delusions some idealistic non-clinical academic lecturer are feeding them. Whatever fibs they are being told – may work great in theory and on campus, but disastrous if they really want to gain the most out of their clinical attachments. The attitude these beliefs breed in our medical students, alienates them from the real doctors in the ‘real’ world.
1. You are an important member of the clinical team.
Then they get fed this bullshit story about how once there was a patient nobody knew why he was dying and some medical student came alone, discovered the diagnosis and saved the patient. It is an Urban Legend, people. Don’t come onto my team thinking you are going to discover some astonishing fact, talk to us as if everything you have to say is of utmost importance, and please don’t look at us expectantly for a thank-you for your effort. Oh, I don’t dispute that sometimes the medical student finds something that no one else on the team knew, but it is often either of small significance, or most commonly something that would not have changed the big picture.
Nope. You kids are not important. You earn your importance. If you put in the work and help out with the team, then maybe, just maybe, you are useful. Students are actually economic burdens. Teaching takes time, time cuts into efficiency, and decreased efficiency means less thorough-put. Less thorough-put means I don’t meet my KPI (key performance indicators), and failure to meet my KPI means I don’t get my bonus. Oh, and did I mention that I don’t get any extra pay for being a teacher or having students on my team? So to cut a long story short – teaching you kids cost me my bonus. For those who put in the work, I consider it worthwhile, I’d be happy to give you my bonus just so you can stay on the team longer and learn more, because sometimes listening to my students talk intelligently makes me puff up with pride.
You are also not so important that you can call me ‘Tiff’. My intern, residents and registrars call me Dr Tiffany, and that’s forgivable because I have a unpronouncable surname (thanks to my Eastern European husband). So, at the very least, you could do me the same courtesy. Yelling down the corridor, ‘Hey, wait up Tiff’ is just not acceptable behaviour for a student on my team. Why the hell would I wait for you when you are late to the ward round anyway?!?!
2. As a medical student, you have ‘rights’
Hahahahahahaha. Sorry, I had to laugh at the absurdity of this concept. What ‘rights’ would you be referring to?
Last month, we were doing a six-hour operation which started at three pm. The student was scrubbed in to help with some retraction. As a ‘reward’ for his efforts, the senior registrar showed great patience and took her time teaching him how to stitch. When it turned six o’clock, the student wanted to be excused. The registrar made a comment that if he stayed, he could practice more suturing and close one of the wounds. His reply was, ‘I am not paid to be here. I am only here to learn. As a student, I have the right to leave when I have done my allocated hours.’
The registrar looked at me and said, ‘Great. Dr Tiffany, why don’t we all just leave the patient on the table and go home? I think I am on the 40th hour over my allocated hours for this month. The anaesthetist here is on his 37th hour, How about you?’
Another example of the so-called ‘rights’ was demonstrated to me by a student who stood at the head of the table observing an operation last week. It was a difficult case – I was digging through scar tissue to access some very fine blood vessels without clobbering any of them and causing a blood bath. There was concentrated silence in the theatre for 2 hours. During which time, I was trying not to get too annoyed with his continuous fidgeting, coughing and sighing. When we finally negotiated through the difficult part of the operation, and I was able to relax (i.e. multi-task), I asked the student if he saw what we were trying to do. He shrugged and said that he didn’t really understand because I didn’t talk to him. I held onto my patience and pointed out all the blood vessels I have dissected out and asked him if he recognised them.
‘No, I have never seen them before. I wouldn’t know what they are. You are supposed to teach me today, but i haven’t learnt anything. I have just stood here for two hours. I don’t think we learn very much watching operations, when are you giving us a tutorial? We have a right to proper teaching.’
Time paused. I could see myself pointing to the door, and yelling ‘Get the F%$#& out of my theatre and don’t ever let me see your #$@% face ever again!’
Instead, I said, ‘If you go home and read about the anatomy of this area, you can give me a tutorial tomorrow on it, and I will tell you whether I could have done that dissection better.’
3. Your opinions are important
Trust me when I say, No, Your opinions are best kept to yourself. In regards to opinions, I have two rules I live by: One, your opinions are only worth mentioning if you are either as old as the person you are giving the opinion to, or you have at least half the experience of the subject as the person you are talking to. Two, some opinions are best left unsaid even if it is a good one.
So if you have had no experience in surgery, you need to shut up, watch and learn. I asked a medical student on her first day once, about what she think Plastic Surgery was about. She said that she knew it was all about reconstruction after removal of cancer and injuries, but ‘in my opinion, it is not really essential, so I think they should cut it out of the public health budget.’
Hmm. Let’s imagine the scenario of Miss Smartass getting run over by a car, then carted into my theatre with crushed legs. There I was, standing over her, waving my amputation saw, as she is drifting off to sleep under anaesthetic, ‘so who think plastic surgery is not essential now?! Mwahahahaha.’
My pet hate is the student who watches me do an operation and tries to tell me how they would do it and why. Ah huh, and sorry if I sound rude, but how many of these have you done? I had to laugh once when a student actually replied, ‘Oh, I haven’t done any, but I have seen quite a few.’ My dear boy, this is not a football game, everyone is an expert because they have watched the game for years. Trust me, if you put any one of those loud, opinionated, beer-drinking, fat bastards who are always yelling obscenities from the couch, onto the football field to play, do you think they can score?! You think they’d win the game? Why don’t you just finish off this operation while I go for my tea break.
4. Medicine can be mastered with ‘Problem Based Learning’ (PBL)
I don’t think I have ever hated a mnemonic more than PBL. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the basis behind PBL, but I think PBL should be taught at the level of training registrars and residents. Teaching PBL to medical students, is like teaching a 17-year-old how to drive without him/her having passed the traffic rule-book written test. You cannot solve the problem, without rote-learning the basics. Yep. Rote-learning, reading, studying and memorising. No shortcuts or ‘I will be able to work it out.’ If you don’t have the knowledge, you won’t be able to ‘wing-it’. And trust me, when someone is bleeding to death on the operating table, they wouldn’t want you to ‘wing-it’ either. Medical school is all about garnering the basic knowledge required to make decisions, and clinical experience during internship and residency is about using that knowledge to perfect the art of clinical judgement. I am still doing problem based learning every single day I am at work. It is something I believe I will continue to do until the day I retire.
Back in the days when I was a medical student (here she goes again *eye-rolls*), we had structured learning of all sciences. It was boring, it was tough, and the amount we had to know seemed irrelevant and insurmountable. But man, was it all so useful when I started surgical training. I am a firm believer that my role as a clinical teacher is to demonstrate to my students the importance and relevance of the basic sciences. I am not trying to teach them how to do an operation, diagnose a disease or to predict prognosis. That is something I teach my surgical trainees. For the medical students, all I am trying to do, is to show them that if they know their sciences well, there will be a whole new world for them to explore with the knowledge they have.
5. There is no such thing as a Stupid Question
WRONG. There is such a thing as a stupid question. Like, ‘What sort of surgery do you do?’ Ok, let me get this right. You have been assigned to my team for 6 weeks and you have no idea what specialty we are in?
If you are thinking of asking a stupid questions, it is better that you say nothing at all. There is nothing more annoying than silly questions from medical students which reflect their complete lack of preparation. Not to mention the polite but pathetic inane questions that accentuate their complete disinterest, absence of comprehension and desire to be somewhere else. Just give me the goddamn attendance form, I will sign it so that you can get your irritating bored ass out of my theatre.
I do like questions when I operate. I like intelligent questions from my students. When a student asks me a question which showed that they have actually done some background reading, I am in seventh heaven. I would take them on a tour of every detail, every aspect and every possible outcome of the surgery we are doing. It is almost orgasmic when my diatribe generates more intelligent questions, showing that they understood what I have been trying to show them, and their interest in what I do. To me, that is like the ultimate ego-stroke.
Sometimes the students are very quiet in my theatre. I suspect it is because they don’t want me to know that they have NFI (No F%$#&ing Idea).
6. Participate in ‘Active Learning’ – speak up and question your clinical teacher
This is like a fast train wreck combining both number 3 and 5. This is an example of ‘active learning’ from a 3rd year medical student I had last year.
Expert Medical Student: Why are you removing the rib like that?
Me: Because it is a safe way of doing it and it is how I normally do it.
EMS: I don’t think you are doing it right.
Me: Why do you say that?
EMS: I have seen Dr X and Dr Y do this operation last week and that’s not how they did it.
Me: There is usually more than one way of doing an operation, we all have our own preferences.
EMS: But I think their way is better.
EMS: They are older and much more experienced, so I think you should do it like them.
I wondered if I would get reported if I picked up my sharps dish and bitch-slapped his face with it.
Me: Why don’t you just watch the way I do it and see if it achieves the same result.
EMS: I wasn’t trying to be rude or anything, it’s just that we are told to question everything so that we can learn why you do what you do.
Me: Ask me why then.
EMS: Why what?
Me: Forget it.
I love my students. Really. I do. I am just very selective whom I show my love to. I love them by teaching them, and I only teach the ones that put in the effort, show respect for their teachers, don’t take our time for granted and don’t make unnecessary noises. I am too old to waste my time and effort on the others.
I sound like an old, arrogant and cranky surgeon. In actual fact, I am afraid to say that my rant reminds me of the Professor of Surgery I had when I was a medical student. Oh God, I really am ancient. I will know I am archaic when I find my portrait next to his in the hallway of the department of surgery.
This is not a blog about bullying. Just about teaching.
Last week, I witnessed a scene in an operating theatre.
Two doctors were operating on a patient. One was the senior consultant and the other, the junior resident. The tension in the room was palpable, and even the humming of the ventilator sounded like a jumbo jet. The operation was not going well. There was constant welling of blood in the body cavity they were concentrating on, and the sucker tubing gurgled continuously with bright red fluid. Stress was evident as expletives started to escape from behind the older doctor’s mask., directed at the younger man. The junior resident was trying his best to help, but he was obviously straining under the other man’s diatribe, apparent in his worsening tremor and the inability to stop the blood from flooding the operating field.
Then, miraculously, the senior surgeon managed to control the situation, and it was as if everyone in the room released their long-held breath in unison. The older surgeon gave an arrogant laugh, ‘It would really ruin my numbers if that one got out of control.’ He daftly tied the loops around the bleeding arterial branch. The operation continued, but as it progressed, it was clear that the resident was starting to annoying the older surgeon with his scrutinised clumsiness. At times when the younger man got in the way, his hands were swatted away like a bothersome fly, accompanied by over-dramatic exasperated sighs from the senior surgeon. When the resident missed a suture with his scissor, it was snatched out of his hand with an expletive, as the older man made a deliberate show of cutting his own sutures, to demontrate the younger doctor’s incompetence.
The tremor in the young man’s hands deterioated. By the time it came for him to close the wound, one could almost hear the instruments vibrating against the patient’s skin. Criticisms started with a few grunts, escalating into abrupt barks of ‘Don’t’ and ‘Stop’. Finally, the needleholder was grabbed from his hand roughly by the senior surgeon. The older man started to close the wound himself in angry jerky movements, at the same time, a barrage of insults descended on the young doctor.
‘Pathetic aplitude for surgery….’
‘You will never make a surgeon…..’
‘What were you thinking taking on this job…..’
‘I don’t know how you could have made it this far as a doctor…….’
‘you are useless…. It wouldn’t have taken me this long if it wasn’t for you……’
‘Why is it that I always get the most pitiable incompetent junior doctors….. ‘
It was as if the avalanche was unstoppable, hammering down at the young man whose head was bowed over his scissors, staring at the wound in concentration as if it was his lifeline. As the last stitch was cut, the older man threw down his instruments on the table and tore his mask off.
‘Put the dressing on and get out of my operating room, before you sabotage anymore of my operations, you worthless excuse.’ He marched out angrily.
The room was quiet. No one said a thing in the last two hours. Including myself. Why? You may ask. Because we were all too afraid, that if the attention was drawn away from the junior doctor, the torrent of abuse would only continue, just at a different target. We knew this from experience. Dr M* was well-known for his vicious disposition. Anger management classes and suspensions did not apply to him, as everyone knew that he was about to become the next Director of Surgical Services. Over the last few years, complaints about him mysteriously got lost, and disgruntled staff members seemed subdued when questioned.
But, it wasn’t the unfairness, or the endless onslaught of malice that shocked me, but the silent tears that were now running into the mask of my younger colleague as he carefully applied the bandages on the wound.
In front of me, was a grown man, reduced to tears.
I knew Peter* well. He was an eager young medical student when I was a first year training resident in surgery. It was an interesting time, with me trying to find my feet as a newbie in surgery while he took everything I did as gospel. Peter was like a curious sponge, everything I taught him, he investigated and researched until he fully understood all there was to know behind each surgical fact.
But that was more than 10 years ago. The man in front of us now was a final year trainee, about to step into the world as a fully qualified surgeon within 3 months. He was a husband to a fellow doctor and a father to 8 year-old twins. What would the children think, if they ever saw their father, standing with his shoulder slumped, his hands shaking, and tears pooling in his mask? It broke my heart. This was a grown man, broken, momentarily, by the maliciousness of another.
Awkardly, I walked over to him. I took the bandages from his limp hands, and I rested my hand on his back.
‘Three months, Peter. Three months. Just hang in there.’
He stared at the floor.
I gave him a gentle shove. ‘Go and write up your operation notes. Grab a coffee. You have another case to go.’
He seemed to gather himself. He took his mask off and swiped at his eyes. He nodded, then looked up. Like all surgical trainees – hard veterans of regular abuse – he reached deep inside himself, found his ultra-thick ‘surgical hide’, and threw it over himself in a protective shroud. Like a magical cape, the despair was suddently erased from Peter’s eyes as if the last 3 hours did not exist. Red rims and puffy eyelids were the only evidence that something may have been amiss. A lop-sided smile broke through. ‘I need something stronger than coffee.’ A self-depreciating laugh followed as he strolled out of the room, looking for all as if he had just accomplished a simple case without a hitch.
It is true that bullying is rife in the field of surgery. It may sound as if I am making excuses, but the stress and pressure can often result in unintended explosions of emotion – which majority of the time, is usually let lose at the most junior person in the room – and never in a positive way. The inferno is often directed at the person least powerful to fight back – which is our trainees or students. They are dependent on their senior surgeons for their assessments and recommendations. Not to mention references for future positions. Surgery is a small world, and a close one. Reputations have a way of establishing itself as early as one’s training years.
It is such a cliché when I say that it was the way I was ‘brought up’ in the world of surgery, and I honestly believe, it made me tougher. A surgeon need to be able to withstand unforeseen stresses, make snap decisions in dire situations and be able to get on with the next operation even when the previous one has failed. I remember being completely accepting of the fact that when I signed up for surgical training, I was going to get abused, yelled at, bullied, hassled and most likely reduced to tears at the most inconvenient times. I remember the incredulous looks from my non-surgical colleagues when I said (tongue-in-cheek), ‘but there is no such thing as bullying in surgery. It is called teaching.’
I remembere being pulled aside by my mentor in my early years, who tried to warn me about a particular senior surgeon’s bad temper, and his love for torturing trainees with spiteful intimidation. I just shrugged, to her amazement, I was not concerned, ‘Well, the way I see it, is that he doesn’t have to teach me at all, but if he is willing to teach me, even if it’s by humiliation, I am willing to learn.’
Sure. I know I am tough. But I had to be. When I was training in surgery, I was one of the very few females in my specialty. I was determined not to give anyone an excuse to call me a girl – because I was a grown woman, and I was gong to be as good as any grown man around me. Some were harsher with me because they thought I belonged in the kitchen, some were easier on me because they were susceptible to a pretty smile, heels and pencil skirts. Constructive criticisms were given, some verging on bullying, whilst others just needed to be accepted with a stiff upper lip.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it is right to teach by abuse, but everyone knows how hard it is for an abused child not to repeat the same life-cycle as his/her parent. I cringe everytime I hear myself say, ‘back in my days…..’
Because back in my days, if a trainee has not looked up an operation the night before the operating list, he would have been sent to the library for the remainder of the list until he knew how to recite the all the procedures back to front. Then, maybe, he may be allowed to hold a scissors and cut the sutures for the senior surgeon.
Despite the long-history of the harsh realities in surgical training, generation change has definitely brought new approaches to teaching. A trainee is like a trade apprentice. Except teaching only knowledge and skill is not enough. The importance of cultivating empathy, integrity, responsbility and collegiality all need to be incorported into the rearing of a good surgeon. And if we start with abusing them, none of these quality will get an opportunity to flourish. Not if their everyday aim was to survive the day without being reduced to tears, or feeling as small as an ant that is just about to be crushed under a surgical boot.
I remember vividly the first advice ever given to me.
You will become a good surgeon if you are a good person, but you aren’t necessarily a good person just because you are a good surgeon. When surgery fails, your integrity is the only thing that will lead you to make the right decisions.
Peter is a good man. He will one day make a great surgeon.
*All names have been changed to ensure confidentiality and protect personal identities.
Mrs Warren* came into my practice yesterday.
Mrs Warren is the mother of Hannah*. Hannah was a 35 year old beautiful young mother of three children, who passed away from metastatic breast cancer two weeks ago. Hannah was my patient three months before she succumbed to her illness.
I heard Mrs Warren’s voice at the front desk reception.
I stayed in my office, consumed by guilt. When Hannah was dying in hospital two weeks ago, one of the nursing staff informed me about her readmission into hospital. ‘Things are not good, I don’t think it will be long.’
‘Maybe I should pop by and visit.’ I thought, mentally swiping at the tears that threatened to clog up behind my eyes.
‘I think they will really like that. Hannah loved you. She thought the world of you.’
I started, then realised I had thought out aloud, the nurse was just responding to my comment.
Days, then weeks passed. I couldn’t bring myself to visit her. Several times I walked towards her room – steeling myself to walk in to face her emaciated semi-conscious form on the bed, surrounded by her grieving family – then finding myself turning, striding rapidly away.
Hannah was my age. She was a lawyer, a lawyer who studied hard, worked long hours, made sacrifices and achieved. She once told me that she was the youngest associate ever to be offered partner. She told me how there was no female lawyers in her department at which we both smiled simultaneously in mutual understanding. She said she sees a reflection of herself when she looks at me. As I do, when I see her.
I never went to see her, I never said goodbye. I never attended the funeral. AFter all, I told myself, she wasn’t a friend. She was a patient. The only thing I did, was to write a card to her family.
Now her mother is standing in my office. And I am kicking myself. I should have made more of an effort. It would have just been ten minutes of my life; After all, my ten minutes would have been nothing compared to ten minutes in her last days. My cowardice overwhelmed me, I found myself hiding in my office, afraid to move. Or breathe.
‘Hello Mrs Warren, we are so sorry to hear about Hannah.’
‘Thank you.’ I imagined her waving her hand elegantly. Mrs Warren always reminded me of a grand matriach, she moved and spoke with such pride and grace. ‘I just wanted to come in and thank the doctor for her card.’ A sniffle. ‘It was so lovely that I had to read it to Hannah yesterday.’ A brief silence was followed by a sharp snap of a handbag. Must have been a tissue. I could almost see her in my mind, using the task as an oportunity to gather her composure.
‘You know, we had so many people at the funeral last week, the church had to leave the doors open.’ There was less wobble in her voice. ‘We got so many flowers and cards.’
‘She had so many specialists, but doctor was the only one who sent a card. Please thank her for me, we were so pleasantly suprised……’
I shut the door.
Tears were running down my face. I was humbled.
It seems the two minutes it took for me to write a card was enough for them.
*All names have been changed to ensure confidentiality and protect privacy.