The Myth of being Plastic Fantastic

Some days I am a little sick of the stereotyping inflicted on me as a Plastic Surgeon, so I am here to put all the urban legends  to rest. There are plenty of myths about plastic surgery from both public ignorance and misconceptions established by shows such as ‘Nip Tuck’.
Myth #1 We use plastic.

Once I had a young tradesman whose face was smashed up by the windscreen in a truck rollover. Just before he was put to sleep (and this is after I have spent an hour explaining to him how I was going to put his face back together), he asked me, ‘So doc, where do you put the plastic?’

*Insert eyeroll*

I have lost count the number of times I have been asked that question. Plastic surgery doesn’t mean we play with plastic or put plastic in people. In fact, if we were to use any form of prosthetic device, it is usually silicone. The ‘plastic’ in plastic surgery is derived from the Greek word plastikos. It means to change shape, or to mould. The aim of plastic surgery is to change the shape of any part of your body, for cosmetic or functional reasons.

So, sorry folks, we don’t shove blocks of plastic into people.

Myth #2 We can perform surgery without leaving a scar or we can remove scars

Here’s a couple of frustrating conversations I have regularly with patients every week.

Scenario one:

Me: We have to make a cut around the skin cancer on your face to remove it. Once we stitch it up, it will leave a straight line scar.

Patient 1 (outraged) : A scar? But you are a plastic surgeon; I have come to you to have this done so there will be no scars.

Scenario two:

Me: I hope you have recovered from your fall last month. Your cut lip has healed really well since the stitches came out, it looks great.

Patient 2: I hate it. I can’t believe you put a scar on my lip; I want you to remove it.

Ok people, I know plastic surgeons are incredibly good, but we can’t perform miracles. Where there is a cut, there will be a scar. We can’t remove scars either. If you want scarless surgery, you should have had your surgery done when you were a foetus – that is the only way to perform surgery without leaving a scar. And if you want us to stitch up your injuries, it was not me who had created those scars; it was your stupidity in falling into a window whilst you were pissed.

So what makes us better than others in scarring? We stitch differently to other surgeons, we use finer sutures, we know how to hide and minimise scars. We have techniques which can camouflage or improve scars. We have the knowledge and means to treat bad scars.

So, apart from making people look hot, we can make your scar look sensational too. But unlike God, we cannot remove history which has been carved onto your body.

Myth #3 All we do are boob jobs, facelifts and buttock enhancements

‘I don’t understand why I have to come to see a plastic surgeon to have my skin cancer cut out, it’s not like I want a facelift or something,’ said the man sitting in front of me with a fungating growth coming out of his nostril. Unfortunately, I was the one who had to break the bad news to him, that the cancer in his nose was so big that we would have to amputate his nose. Any surgeon would be able to remove his cancer, but he would be left with a hole in the middle of his face. The reason he needed a plastic surgeon was because we can remove the cancer and reconstruct his nose.

The acronym for our specialty is actually PRS – it stands for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. There are two components to our work:

Reconstructive surgery: which is surgery to improve and restore function, to minimize disfigurement and reconstruct structure which was lost due to trauma, disease, cancer or birth defect. Basically, our job is to fill up a hole anywhere on the body. Sometimes we excise tumours ourselves, but often we work in tandem with other oncological surgeons such as orthopaedic surgeons who resect bone and soft tissue tumours, ear nose and throat surgeons who resects tongue, nose, throat cancers, as well as breast surgeons who perform breast cancer surgery. The way I see it is that my oncology colleagues are the ‘destructive’ surgeons and I am the ‘constructive’ surgeon. I remember when I first started training I was hesitant as to how much margin to take around a tumour. My supervising surgeon took me aside and said, ‘Just remember, Tiff, the reason you are going to be a plastic surgeon is because you are not afraid to make a big hole. Unlike other surgeons, you can fix holes.’

Aesthetic or cosmetic surgery: which is surgery to enhance, or to rejuvenate a specific body part, it is designed to improve a person’s appearance by reshaping facial or bodily features. So yes, we get a chance to make people beautiful. We make boobs bigger, smaller, perkier or firmer. We lift up butts, thighs, arms and faces (not specifically in that order). We inject, insert, eliminate and suck to enhance contours. There has not been a single part of the human body that a plastic surgeon has not attempted to alter, although I gladly admit that I have had no training or experience in anal bleaching – nor am I interested in expanding my field into that area.

Myth #4 Our work is frivolous and we perform non-essential surgery.

As my husband (who is a heart and lung surgeon) sums it up succinctly, ‘Honey, I save lives, you just make the world beautiful.’

Even though spoken in jest, unfortunately it is a view held by many, including hospital administrators, insurance companies and sadly, our colleagues in other specialties. I have had medical students who did not attend their plastic surgery sessions with me at the clinic because they feel that it is not something they need to learn about. I was once told by a second year student that plastic surgeons are not real surgeons who practice ‘true medicine’.

People seem to forget that plastic surgery is not just about cosmetic surgery, but that the most important aspect of our role is to improve a person’s self esteem. No matter how much the self-help books may claim about not placing too much importance on one’s appearance, and to stop using your looks to determine your self-worth, the reality of life is simply – people do judge you by the way you look. And that includes yourself.

It is amazing the difference we sometimes see in our patients. Like the 12-year-old boy who was constantly teased at school for his bat ears – he got it fixed before he started high school. He became a completely different person; he happily went to the barber to have him shaggy long hair removed, started going out with his friends and strutted into my office at 8 weeks postop as if he owned the world like a typical 12-year-old boy. My favourite last month was a 30-year-old mother who had a nasty burn scar over her neck and chest from a childhood hot-water scald. The scars stopped her breasts from developing properly and distorted whatever little breast tissue that did develop. After surgery to correct the deformity and implants to provide shape, she swapped her oversized jumpers for tailored dresses, and started becoming more involved in mother’s groups. She wore a pink singlet with a pearl pendant dangling in her new cleavage when she came to her appointment, despite the visible old burn scars which covered her neck.

Surprising it may be, we do perform surgery that saves lives and limbs. We are often called upon to join small blood vessels under the microscope for organ transplantation in children. We reconstruct the neck after throat cancer, so that the patient can still eat, drink and breathe. We put fingers back on after they have been accidentally severed, and we transplant soft tissues into smashed up legs that otherwise would have had to be amputated.

Unfortunately our work often goes unrecognised, as throughout history, we have had to repeatedly fight for our patients’ right to access plastic surgery. When hospitals have budget cuts, our operating lists are often the first to be cut. Breast reconstruction after cancer was the last one they slashed from our hospital, because once the cancer has been removed, it is no longer considered life-saving surgery. Health insurance companies which exclude plastic surgery cover leave their members with a policy which pays for the cancer removed, but not the plastic surgical procedure to reconstruct or repair the hole.

Admittedly I sound like I am trying to justify our existence, but I truly believe that even though we are not saving lives every day, our work makes a siginificant difference in people’s lives.

Myth #5 We date our patients

There seems to be a misconception that we fall in love with our creations. I explored this particular issue with my male colleagues. The answer was a categorical no, although they have had plenty of invitations from patients to cross that line. Not only is it ethically wrong and fraught with medicolegal implications, it is also rather disturbing that someone would fall in love with an image they have created, which may have nothing to do with the actual person underneath.

Myth #6 We make lots of money because we charge ridiculous amount of money

I am not blind to the fact that as a plastic surgeon, I am often the target of many sarcastic jokes about money. This not only comes from patients, the general public, but sometimes our own colleagues in the medical fraternity. When I was sitting my specialist board exam, one of the candidates for general surgery taunted me, ‘I think your essay question would be on whether a Maserati is better than a Lamborghini.’ I was not shy to show him the finger as I sweetly replied, ‘well, I do hope you know the answer to your essay questions, which hole to put your finger up.’

Once I was leaving work, and one of my patients walked past me as I was putting my bag into the boot of the car. He took one look at my ten year old Toyota Corolla and shook his head. ‘Oh, doc, you need to get a new car, people would think you are not very good if they see you driving that car.’ I just shrugged and said, ‘Don’t worry Mr B, I leave my Ferrari in the garage for weekends.’ At his stunned look, I had to tell him I was joking.

It is not uncommon sometimes for our patients to comment on the cost of surgery, especially if it involves cancer surgery. For some reason people seem to think that we should do their surgery out of the goodness of our hearts if they have cancer….. but that’s another story altogether. One of the reasons that plastic surgery costs a lot more money than most other surgery is the rebate from health funds are low (because our procedures are not deemed to be a necessity), but also our practice has a lot of overheads, especially with wound care, garments, implants and dressings. We also employ a greater number of staff than other specialties, because there is a lot more patient contact time pre and post operatively. Plastic surgery patients and procedures are more complex to organise, and often requires various number of phone calls and coordination. Not to mention, our patients are usually high maintenance and requires constant reassurance.

Yes, some of us drive Aston Martins, stay at 6 star hotels, wear Gucci and walk in Louis Vuitton, but we work hard for it, and our responsibilities may not be life and death, but there is still a lot of stress involved in our surgery because we know the end result will have a life-long impact on our patients’ life.

Myth #7 We drive fast cars, hang out with celebrities, party like animals, snort cocaine and have the most glamorous life of any doctors

This is simple. We drive fast cars, because we have very busy lives and have places to get to. That’s my excuse and I am sticking to it. And trust me, my Corolla is pretty fast.

The only celebrities we hang out with are those that come for treatment. As I don’t perform a lot of cosmetic procedure, most of the celebrities I have contact with are those who have injured themselves or need reconstruction for cancers. They don’t usually act anything like celebrities when they are in my office and the last thing they need is for me to ask them for a selfie.

We try to party like animals, but often our job stops us. We are notorious for pulling out of social commitments at the last minute. One of the worst thing about being a reconstructive surgeon, is that our colleagues take all day to remove the cancers, and we have to sit around waiting for them to finish (or we may have to watch them so they don’t destroy our reconstructive options whilst cutting out the cancer). Once they are done, they piss off to enjoy their evening, while we start our work, usually at the unsociable hour of 4-5pm, working well into the night to patch up the ‘mess’ they have left behind.

What glamorous night life?

As for cocaine, yeah, I know colleagues who do it at parties, but honestly, it usually doesn’t take long for the Board to find them. It is rare that a plastic surgeon is stupid enough to risk their career and reputation to develop such an expensive habit.

Myth #8 We all have had some ‘work’ done on us

I would not deny that some plastic surgeons have had work done, but not all. Although I can’t say the same for the wives or staff! Personally, I don’t trust anyone enough to have plastic surgery done on myself and it is a little difficult perform a facelift on yourself when you should really be asleep throughout the procedure. I know colleagues who inject themselves in the mirror, but I have this unusual need to close my eyes when I see needles coming towards my face, so the results would be rather questionable if I went down that path.

Most of my staff have injections, not because I force them, but it is something I offer them if they want it. And who could say no to free Botox? Because I am very conservative in my treatments, my staff are actually free advertisements of my work. When one of my staff admits to having treatment, the patients are reassured that they won’t look like Jocelyn Wildenstein when they leave my practice.

But, truthfully, the greatest benefit in giving my staff Botox is its efficiency in stopping my practice manager frowning at me and my receptionist frowning at my patients.

Myth #9 Our practice staff are picked for their looks

So, supposedly, this means that our staff should be beautiful young girls with faces full of injectables and look-at-me enhanced breasts. I mean, it is free advertising after all, and who would’t want to be surrounded by luscious females?

Truth number 1 – Most surgeon’s practices are run by their wives. So, which wife would be stupid enough to surround her husband with gorgeous young things?

Truth number 2 – Young girls who are obsessed with their looks don’t usually have the right personality nor the prioritisation skills to run a business well.

Truth number 3 – Experience comes with age. So unless you want to be surrounded by rookies who have no idea what they are doing, you would pick more ‘mature’ staff members to make your own life easier.

Truth number 4 – Patients and clients sometimes find perfection intimidating. They are more comfortable talking about their inadequacies to someone who has flaws as they feel that someone would understand what it is like to be ‘ugly’.

Myth #10 We can make Queen Latifah look like Heidi Klum and vice versa

This is the ultimate myth. I always know it is going to be a difficult consultation when a 5’3, 200+lb person walks in and slaps a picture of Gisele Bundchen on my desk.

So here’s my spill:

  1. I cannot make you taller – go see an orthopaedic surgeon or stick to your heels
  2. I cannot make you a natural blonde – you need a hairdresser or a beautician
  3. Neither can I change the colour of your skin – that’s a disease called vitiligo
  4. Lipsouction is not a form of weight loss – get a personal trainer and stop eating junk
  5. A tummy tuck will not give you six-pack if you haven’t got one to start with
  6. I cannot turn back time to make you look 40 years younger, maybe 10, without the pimples
  7. I cannot make your woo-hoo look perfect nor make you a virgin again (yep, this is a genuine request, apparently Dr Google says it is a great anniversary present for your husband, or wedding present if you are marrying a younger man.)
  8. I cannot reverse gravity with a cream, it is called surgery
  9. And of course, I cannot perform scarless surgery
  10. Oh, and I cannot execute plastic surgery which will make your husband stop sleeping with his 20-year-old secretary, unless you want me to ask my Urology colleague to do a quick operation on your husband.

So, we may be Plastic Fantastic, but we are really just like any other regular surgeons. We cannot perform miracles, and we cannot change who you are. You need to speak to either God or a Shrink about that one.

 

 

Not a Saint Hospital

One morning I found a note on my desk from my secretary. It said:

The Medical Director at St X would like an appointment with you to check that everything is going well for you at St X.

It wasn’t unusual to get a ‘summon’ from the Medical Director of these private hospitals. Usually, it is a low-key chat to make sure that the private surgeons working there are not having issues with the operating theatre equipment or staff, and that they have no complaints about ward care of their patients. It was just over 2 years since I have started bringing patients into St X for my surgical lists so I was expecting an invitation from the MD sooner or later.

I asked my secretary to shorten my next St X operating list, and arrange an appointment with the MD afterwards around 5pm for me.

This was the conversation:

MD: Hi Dr T, thanks for taking the time to see us. So, how’s everything going?

Me: Great. I have had no problems, the theatres are great, the nurses on the ward are helpful, my patients have had no complaints. They are liking the private rooms and….

MD: (Nodding vigorously and leaning forward to cut me off). Well, I want to talk to you about Mrs Y.

Me: Oh? Is she causing problems with the staff?

Mrs Y was a patient of mine on the surgical ward whom I had just admitted two weeks ago. She was a teacher in her late 50’s who sustained severe spinal injuries when she was a teenager and is now wheelchair bound. Mrs Y was also a long term insulin dependent diabetic who unfortunately had severe ketoacidosis last year and ended up in ICU, ventilated for 2 months. During her illness, they didn’t look after her pressure areas so she ended up with severe grade IV pressure sores over both the ischium and sacrum by the time she was transferred out of ICU. She was then discharged from hospital with this problem as no one wanted to deal with it whilst she was an inpatient. Mrs Y went back to teaching, and spent hours every day in her chair. When her blood sugars started to deteriorate and her family doctor noticed an unpleasant smell during one of her visits, it led to the discovery of her persistent pressure sores. By the time she came into my office, she was hyperglycaemic, septic with infection as both pressure sores were wide and deep enough for me to put two fists in each. I could see her ischial bone at the base of one, and the rectum at the base of the other, and because she was incontinent from her spinal injury, the wounds were severely contaminated with faeces as she sat in the wheelchair in her soiled diapers. Understandably, both her and her husband were by now, agitated and frustrated with unhelpful medical staff and hospitals.

I admitted her into St X, because it was a large tertiary private hospital with all specialties on hand. She required an urgent endocrinology review, infectious disease input, a general surgical procedure to divert her faecal output via a temporary colostomy, dressings and pressure care. Needless to say, she started to improve within 7 days. She required intensive nursing care with four times a day dressing change (to prevent accumulation of pus that was continually exudating from the wound) and two hourly turns to prevent development of new pressure sores while she was bed bound.

Mrs Y, at the beginning of the week, cranky from feeling ill and hating being bed bound, was not the best compliant patient. She was a teacher after all and did not like being told what to do. She was also a little distrustful of the nursing staff as it was poor nursing care in ICU which resulted in her current problems. However, after seeing herself improve over a week, she became the most pleasant and grateful patient on the ward. She helped the staff by setting an alarm clock and turning herself so that all the nurses had to do was to pop their heads into her room and check that she was in a different position. She also changed her own colostomy bags so that the staff didn’t have to deal with this particularly unpleasant job. The nurses told me that they enjoyed looking after Mrs Y.

I was rather surprised that the MD had brought her up in our meeting.

MD: No no, nothing like that at all. (He cleared his throat awkwardly). Patients like Mrs Y, well, we find it hard to accommodate them in this hospital.

Me: I know, I know, spinal patients should really be in dedicated spinal units, but there are no private spinal facilities for these patients. Mrs Y has been paying her private health insurance for over 30 years, so she didn’t want to go to a public hospital; she wanted to be looked after in a private hospital.

MD: We understand that, but private health funds in general don’t pay us very much for looking after patients like her. She requires intensive nursing care so we actually don’t get any profit for such a heavy nursing load.

Me: (Speechless for a second) So, let me get this right. You don’t want patients like Mrs Y because her admission doesn’t generate enough profit for the hospital?

MD: I just wanted to make you aware of this, so that you will remember in the future not to bring patients like her into our hospital. We would prefer day surgery patients, but if you feel strongly about keeping them overnight, we are more than happy to accommodate that. As for Mrs Y, I believe you are planning to keep her in hospital for a while?

Me: Yes. At least 3 months.

Both Mrs Y and I had a long discussion about this. She had agreed to take a whole semester out of teaching and come into hospital to have her sores treated properly. This meant bed rest with appropriate pressure care, no sitting in her wheelchair and regular dressings. I had explained to her in depth that if we could make her overall health better, these sores may heal without intervention. If not, they may need an operation. However, even with an operation, she will need to be off the surgical wounds for 6 weeks before she could sit on them. She knew she was in for the long haul, because she didn’t just bring her suitcase when she checked into the hospital, she also brought her Nespresso machine. According to Mrs Y, 3 months was a long time to go without good coffee.

I watched the MD’s face cringe.

Me: I can’t rush the healing process, and I have to wait for the infection to settle.

MD: Maybe you can find a little operation for her so that we can get a little more money out of her health fund during her stay?

Me: But she doesn’t need an operation. She just needs dressings.

MD: We are probably going to lose money if she stays that long.

Me: Would you like me to transfer her to the public hospital? (The MD looked up at me with surprise and a glint of hope in his eyes). I could just say to Mrs Y that St X doesn’t want you here because they are unable to make a profit out of your stay. They think you should really be in a public hospital despite the fact you have paid your private health premiums for the last 30 years…..

MD: No, no. (He started to clear his throat again). There is no need for that. I suppose since we are a hospital affiliated with the church, we can show charity by letting her stay her for a while.

Me: Righto. Is that all? (I started to get up to leave).

MD: But, (he stopped me turning towards the door), if you do a few more of your cosmetic cases here at St X’s, it may compensate for her stay.

He stood up and reached out to shake my hand.

Me: Well, I cancelled two breast augmentations this afternoon because of this meeting. I have transferred them to my lists at another hospital tomorrow.

I ignored his hand, turned to open the door, and walked out of his office without a backward glance.

Mrs Y stayed for the full 3 months and went back to teaching full time, sitting in her wheelchair with a beautifully healed bottom.

 

Living in an Epidemic

When I was reading about the Ebola outbreak last night, I thought of my time in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic. So I went back to the diaries I kept during this time and found couple of interesting entries. I was there as a Fellow in one of the world famous plastic surgery units during 2003. A Fellow is a young doctor who travels to another hospital unit to train for a specified period as a ‘trainee’ doctor, usually to learn from a specific doctor or a particular procedure/technique.

I have left this entry unedited, as it is a true perspective of an Australian living in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic, both as a doctor and local resident.

25th Aug 2003

It’s been more than two months already since the first wave hit Taipei. I still remember the panic that hit the city during that first week; it was when they closed down Ho-Ping Hospital in central Taipei, with all its patients and staff isolated within the hospital. It was constantly being aired on the news and the hospital exterior was being videoed 24 hours a day, a bit like reality TV. There were scenes of flying badmington cocks over the railings of the balcony, and I remembered the presenter reporting that it was great to see that the occupants of the hospitals keeping up their spirits, and exercising to keep fit. The comments from my male colleagues in the TV room at the time were less than polite. I think something was mentioned about there are better things to do when you are couped up with a whole bunch of young nurses. *eye roll*

Then there were news of individuals who were to be isolated at their own homes because they’ve been in contact with SARS suffers. After which, news of non-compliant isolated individuals venturing out of their homes were reported with the police were called to herd them back home. They have now posted guards around quarantined buildings to stop residents from ‘escaping’. Cases were on the rise, another hospital got shut down, and the mortality is starting adding up.

I have missed my chance to go home. Four weeks ago our department director gathered all the overseas Fellows in his office to let us know that if we wanted to go home and leave the country, he would still be happy to write us a certificate for our fellowship and recommend us for jobs back home. There were 7 of us, two from Harvard in the US, 2 from Italy, 1 from UK and another from Ukraine. The Ukrainian and I stayed. It was really a blessing in disguise, because now, instead of elbowing other Fellows out of the way for an opportunity to do cases, we are both operating more than 12 hours a day. I joked to my concerned parents back home that I spend so much time in the operating theatre with its filtered and uni-direction airflow, I am probably at the lowest risk of getting any respiratory virus. They weren’t amused. Wherease my boyfriend just said that if I got SARS, he wasn’t coming to visit. I’d like to believe that’s anger and frustration talking. I can understand why he’s so pissed at me. I think I would be too if our positions were reversed.

The one thing I have discovered about living in this SARS epidemic is that there seem to be more pregnant women than usual at the moment. One nurse mentioned to me that since we have to take our temperatures every day as required for all hospital staff, she has finally managed to get pregnant during her last cycle as she knew her exact ovulation date. A fellow colleague also mentioned that you can pick the pregnant nurses during this epidemic, as they are usually the ones wearing an N95-grade mask. These are heavy duck-billed masks which have viral filters and are very hot and uncomfortable. Most staff members such as myself (who want to breathe and admittedly am a bit blasé about the whole thing) just wear the regular light ones.

Oh well. You’ve gotta learn to see the bright side of life when living in an Epidemic.

Administration has been harping on about wearing the right masks, but I seriously believe that if I wash my hands (which are raw from scrubbing all day), and keep away from sniffling, slobbering people, I’ll be fine. I have been avoiding public transport as much as possible. I have blistered on my feet because it takes me one hour each way, walking to and from work. After 8pm, I just sleep in one of the spare beds in the Burns Unit. I suppose I am like every other deluded doctor at the moment, we think we are being ‘adequately’ careful and probably invincible.

A thought just occurred to me. If I die in this epidemic, I won’t be able to hear ‘I told you so.’

Well, I guess if I am not back tomorrow, you know I am being ventilated in ICU with SARS.

 

 

The Expert Opinion of Medical Students

med student

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.

Me: Because?

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?

Deep breath.

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.

 

Speech to the Wannabes

Good evening. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak. I remember sitting in those very seats you are in now, back in the days when I was a medical student like yourselves.

I was asked two weeks ago, by your faculty Dean to give a talk to you all, on why I chose to do Surgery.

I thought very hard about it, maybe too hard. I thought of all the clichés I should throw in, like it’s satisfying, it’s challenging, it’s interesting. But what field in Medicine isn’t? Somedays, I catch myself envying my colleagues in their jobs, and somedays I walk away from a problem, glad I didn’t have to deal with it.  There are days I am appreciated by others for what I do, and there are days when I am belittled and teased about what I can’t comprehend as a surgeon.

So I have decided that, today, I will tell you why I chose not to do anything else.

I don’t think I could ever be a radiologist. I am afraid of the dark. In surgery, I am always working in a well-lit room. In fact, people around me will always move the light so that it is directed at me and my work. The operative lights are powerful, and for someone who loves being the centre of attention, I am constantly in the spot light.

I could never be a pathologist. They deal with dead people, or bits of tissue (which are also dead) removed from the body. I like to work with living people and living tissue. I also like the skills I possess to revive them under certain circumstances. I am sure findng the cause of death or disease is satisfying for the pathologists, but I figured that finding the cause and being able to fix it, is even more gratifying.

I would find it hard to be an anaesthestist, because then I would end up spending the majority of my time with people who are asleep. I already do that when I get home late from work, although occasionally I do get a grunt or two when I tell my husband about my day while he is slumbering. I am not very good at crosswords and sudoku either. I think if I had to sit there, listening to the steady beep, beep, beep for hours, staring at the squiggly lines on the screen, I’d find it hard to stay awake. Worse still, if I was an anaesthetist, I will have to stand there and be a spectator while the really exciting gory stuff is happening on the other side of the drapes. That’s just not me. I’d rather be the loud conquering hero, elbow deep in blood, than the quiet achiever behind the scenes.

I might have be tempted to become an Emergency physician. TV dramas always project them as exciting heroes, with challenges where they can save lives.  But when I did my ED term as an intern, I realised that these dramatic moments come rarely (which I guess is actualy a good thing). I spent plenty of my time in ED admitting little old ladies with pneumonia and falls, stitching up aftermath of drunken brawls, and sedating IV drug users whilst trying not to get spat at. Sometimes I think it’s awesome that the emergency doctors do shifts. That when they leave work, they don’t really carry further clnical responsbilities because they have ‘handed-over’ to the next doctor. I also found it frustrating, because I never found out what really happened to that 40 year-old man who came with babushka dolls in his rectum, as seen on his abodminal x-ray (because he fell on them, so he said). I felt like a traffic director because the responsibility ended when the patient has been referred on to the appropriate speciality for further management. So I never knew what was done to treat them, or if I even got the diagnosis right in the first place.

I don’t have the strength to be an Oncologist. It is probably one of the very few specialties where the doctor deliberately harm the patient with poisons, in the hope that it will treat or hold their cancers at bay. For the few that are saved, many benefit from prolonged lives, which sometimes, are accompanied by suffering. I think if I was an oncologist, I will have to be comfortable with the concept of Death. This would be hard, because in many fields of Medicine, death is viewed as a failure of the doctor’s abilities, even when we know there is nothing that can be done. I like successes, and I take failures too personally. I would not last in Oncology.

I love Paediatrics. It’s the parents I can’t deal with. There were days when I did paediatrics that I was tempted to prescribe sedatives for the parents, and gave my little patients vitamin C pills (also known as placebo for children), just so that the parents felt that I was doing something for their child. Dealing with babies, is like vetenary medicine. If the child doesn’t bark (cry), play, eat or poop, one had to figure out what is wrong with it, sometimes with almost no lead to follow. I am not that smart, I like my patients to tell me what’s wrong and what they want. And I need clues like sledgehammers.

I am a planner – my life is planned down to 15-minute blocks. Obstetrics would wreck havoc with my mental stability. Babies never book an appointment to appear. They come when they are ready, or sometimes, even when they are not ready. They also don’t book the length of their appointments, some want only half an hour and the others take their sweet time in getting to the point. Getting up at 2am to extract inconsiderate babies and performing an emergency caesarean to facilitate their wish to exit via the sun-roof, does not sit well with my planning tendencies. No, obstetrics would definitely antagonise the control freak in me.

I think General Practictioners are important. Family doctors are the crux of all communities and health systems, and they are family to many patients. They deal anything from simple cough and colds to complex medical dilemmas. Their knowledge has to be so broad as to include all possibilities in medicine. They also have to think about their patient’s social situations, and almost take on the role of a social worker. I have neither the acumen for broad general knowledge (I am always the weakest link on quiz nights) or the patience for complex social situations (I have serious foot-in-the-mouth syndrome), so I think I would score an epic fail in family medicine.  I know just about everything in my little specialty corner amongst the big wide world of medicine – so I think I will stick to what I know.

I can deal with a lot of gory things, like chopped off fingers, haemorrhage and fungating tumours, but there are a few things that make me gag. Phlegm and Mucous. I guess that ruled out respiratory medicine for me. Collecting and looking at gooey bubbly mucous in collecting pots brought bile to my throat. Subconsciously, whenever I hear a very fruity cough, I hold my breath to push down my gag reflex. I admire those who deliberately seek out rattling mucous in patient’s lungs with their stethoscopes. Ergh.

Physicians are smart. Like Sheldon in Big Bang Theory. Comprehending complex medical problems, working out multiple drug-interactions and ordering the right tests to solve confusing symptoms seem like second nature to them. They can’t fathom why anyone else haven’t worked it out yet and the looks of incredulous disbelief (or disdain) when a question is asked, is part of their usual demeanor. And yet, for all that incredible intellect, they are pathetic mechanics. They don’t seem to be able to grasp the physical aspects of the human body nor the common sense of surgically removing the cause of a problem.  Don’t ever try to quiz a physician on anatomy. They do know a lung, stomach or the brain when they see one, and they do know the rough whereabouts these organs lie, but they’d be hard pressed to know the origin and route of every blood and nerve supplies. Some even turn pale at the sight of blood, and becomes completely useless when anything remotely looking like a surgical instrument is placed in their hands. My mind is not geared like a physicist or mathematician. I cannot think like a physician. I don’t have the patience to wait and see whether a drug I have prescribed is going to work or not. I would much rather do something active about it. Even then, after surgery, I usually can’t wait for the patients to wake up and let me know if they feel better.

By now, you might think if I wasn’t committed to the world of insane, I would make a good psychiatrist. Wrong. I have lots of time for shrinks. In fact, I have spent a lot of time with mine. I remember thinking, as I went on and on about the stresses of my work and how pathetic I feel, painfully dragging it out into a full hour, why anyone would spend day after day listen to people whine about their problems. In fact, what was even more frustrating, was the fact that there was nothing he could do about my situation. He couldn’t make my bullying colleague stay away from me; he couldn’t tell the crazy patient to stop hassling me; he couldn’t give me two months’ worth of salary so I could take a holiday; nor could he try and change my husband into a domestic goddess. He was a sounding board, someone to make me see a different perspective of my life, and occasionally, fiddle with my medication. He has always told me that I would not get better, or cope with life, until I have decided that I can and  I will. I would find being a shrink so frustrating, because I cannot control how my patient feels, change their situations and be able to actively do something to help. For this one, I think I’d rather stick to my role as a patient.

Please don’t think I am bashing other specialities. In fact, I admire all my colleagues, and at times, I envy them. Because I know I can’t do what they do. But if you want a straight answer to why I chose surgery, here it is.

It is because I love it. I can make a difference in people’s lives, I find what I do exciting, and I know I can do it well.

But this is what every doctor will tell you about their specialty.

Don’t just chose surgery when you grow up, chose something that excites you and something that you are passionate about.

And if that happens to be Surgery. Then you have great taste. Like me.