I am a surgeon. Not an hour of the day goes by that that fact is not stated and emphasized, if not to others, then at least to me. If the others don’t notice, so be it. So what, exactly, does it mean: I am a surgeon? Ah! To ask the question forever consigns the questioner to the ignorance of not knowing—not REALLY knowing—the answer.
The essence of understanding what it means to be a surgeon can only be fathomed by those that have practiced what I term, The Savage Art: those fortunate few who have been given the privilege of viewing the inner workings of one of nature’s magnificent machines; those who have been blessed with a perspective that few can imagine, though many have tried.
“Grandiosity,” avers the reader. “Guilty as charged,” replies the writer. But my grandiosity, is born of the unique and indescribable humility that comes from exercising the power to assault another’s flesh in the name of doing good, of offering “a cure” for whatever affliction has brought the patient to the surgeon, while proving the pure and simple impotence that disease imposes on the practitioners of the savage art: the impotence of having too few weapons, too little knowledge, and ultimately absolutely no power whatsoever outside of those few instances that the long and painful history of medicine has allowed me to master, and us to understand and to “conquer” an illness.
Beguiling and seductive is the call to this profession; indeed it’s often been referred to as a calling, mimicking and mocking the aspiration to the professions of faith. Yet, being a surgeon is precisely, uniquely, and wholly an aspiration, a profession of faith, a unique, almost strange priesthood, replete with rites of initiation, prostration before authority, and ultimately a profound and abiding humility.
Humility? A trait found in surgeons? Yes, humility is indeed a fundamental foundation of our being, for who else has been granted the consent, the ability to see what God and nature have wrought to bring into existence this magnificent machine, this human body? Practitioners of medicine have an intellectual understanding of the functioning of this body, but surgeons have been blessed and cursed with actually seeing these functions as they occur. It’s almost a sacrament, operating. It is at once a most intimate, yet violent, violating act.
I share with my patients perhaps the most unique and exquisite act of surrender that they will ever experience. No loved one is granted access to that which I (at times, blithely) expect: to those parts, those workings, those organs, tissues, and fluids that are forbidden by anatomy and circumstance to those whom patients have been given or have chosen as family. They offer to me their bodies while they lie paralyzed in a chemically induced coma. They consent to, and often they request that I cut them, that I remove and rearrange parts of them in an effort to relieve pain, rearrange errant anatomy. My God, what a privilege! What a crushing burden.
And I love it! I love the intellectual, the technical, the emotional challenge. I find a deep, abiding, unequaled peace while operating: a kind of satori, where the moment and the action become one, and all else is frozen, banished from conscious thought. It is a moment, no many moments, of intense focus free from the intrusions and troubles of life; it is a sacred moment, a spiritual moment, a moment in which I am bonded to another by my compete and utter separation from them. It is what I am, and I am proudly grateful for it. I am a surgeon.