I want to take a moment once again to talk about my surgeons. Well, all surgeons really. But mine in particular, those in each of my surgeries who took it upon themselves to take my life in their hands, to do everything they could to give me the best chance of survival, and with it, put themselves and me at the mercy of luck.
Of course the incredible skill of my surgeons is the main factor in it all, there is no taking away from that. They worked hard to get where they are and they are incredibly skilled. It is down to them personally that such a good job was done. But it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the huge part that luck also plays.
Before going into the surgery people would say ‘good luck’ to me and I said thank you but thought to myself that it had nothing to do with luck, it was down to the great work of the surgeon. I thought if anyone needed luck it would be them, but hoped that it wouldn’t be down to luck that I survived it and the outcome was favourable!
But I realise now that is a bit of an oversight. The French surgeon René Leriche once said that ‘Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery…’ Not necessarily just for patients who didn’t wake up, but for those who ended up with additional damages.
Surgery is insane. We’re doing things now that we never would have even attempted in the past. Think about brain surgery for example – the amount of risk involved there is scary. But these people take that risk on, knowing that your death or paralysis could be at their hand as opposed to the tumour growing inside the lump of flesh sitting in front of them.
So while giving due praise to the skill of the surgeon, it would not be fair on them to put all the onus of your survival on them, sometimes things just go wrong. Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes no mistakes are made but still things don’t work out. And unless it’s done with malicious intent (you occasionally see those stories in the news), or significant negligence, nothing that goes wrong can really be blamed on the surgeon, though I’m sure they often blame themselves. In fact author Adam Kay gave up being a surgeon after a (non consequential) mistake at the end of a very long shift that could have ended in disaster but did not.
Some surgeons are egotistical narcissists with no people skills – that’s the stereotype, isn’t it? Inflated sense of ego instilled from playing God on the regular. Others are humble and great with talking to people, or even writing their experiences down (some brilliant books out there written by surgeons). But either way, no matter what their personality, style or people skills, they are taking lives into their hands, weighing up the risks and deciding to give it a go. A very educated and practiced go. But a go, nonetheless. They are still human.
It’s a bit difficult coming together from both sides of the fence. Us as the patient, and them as the surgeon. Us, them. We want answers, we want progress, we want things to be fixed now. And you know me, I’m always on the go, patience has never been my strong point. From their point of view, it’s good to wait and get stability, and let’s be real, although scar tissue in your lip that makes you look ridiculous when you get teeth is disheartening as a patient, what does it really matter?
Patients can seem demanding, difficult, ungrateful and pushy. Most of which stems from an underlying place of fear. Surgeons can seem despondent, haughty, dismissive, defensive. Most of which stems from just being busy (you’re not their only patient) and also an underlying place of fear. Fear of not succeeding, fear of their work being pulled into question. The brain surgeon Henry Marsh described it as ‘morbid fear’ that he gets before surgery, but which dissipates when he picks up his scalpel – no time to be afraid, a job to get done.
We like our surgeons to be confident. But can you imagine how much of a blow their self-esteem could take if something went wrong? I get that if I write a post that doesn’t resonate with someone. Suddenly I think ‘oh I’m terrible, why do I even bother’. Only for a second, but then it takes me a moment to get up the courage to write another. Not seriously, but the thought is there. And like anything we do, if there is a failure, it knocks back our confidence. And we’re evolutionarily hard wired to take negative things on board more than the positive. If our ancestors ate a berry that make them ill, they needed to remember never to eat that berry again. Even in 100 good things, it is the bad one that stands out to us, that we hold on to, that we dwell on.
I bet you that any surgeon with a bit of experience under their belt could still tell you about their ‘failures’ (though they may not like to). What they were wearing when they broke the bad news, the face of the patient or family, how they got home after. Maybe they bury it deep, trying not to remember it, chalking it down to ‘wasn’t my fault’ but I can guarantee you it is still there, imprinted in their mind forever.
The second part of that quote from Leriche is as follows:
“Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray.”
In fact one of my surgeons said recently that she will never forget the day they had to rush me back into hospital. I was so blissfully unaware, just so grateful that they all rushed in on a Saturday and got me back in and fixed it. I was smiling heading in, not at all phased. I had complete and utter faith in the fact that they would fix it. Complete and utter faith in them. And rightly so, but it could have gone either way. I guess they understood the gravity of the situation. Their work had failed (not due to them, just due to luck) and my life was on the line, they needed to get back in, try again and hopefully fix it.
We need them to stay confident after a set-back. To trust in themselves to make the cut, to do the surgery. In my case, they worked tirelessly for 10 hours in that second surgery, having done it for 16 hours just five days before. Could you imagine working at something so delicate and ultimately important for 16 hours? My concentration wanes each day at 3pm, after only 6 hours at work.
Sometimes I wonder if there were pictures taken of my surgery and if I would want to look at them if they were available to me. I’m not sure I could deal with seeing myself in that way. But part of me does have a fascination, and I would certainly like to see photos of my surgeons in action, look in at their faces as they worked to save my life, looking as an outsider but also an insider too, someone with a somewhat vested interest in the outcome.
I’m not going to stop pushing for answers. I’ve always been one to wait my turn and not rock the boat, but I’ve been told too many times over the past year to be my own advocate. So I ask the questions, I follow up on the responses when I haven’t heard anything. But I hope they know that when I am grumbling about something so seemingly inconsequential to them like not being able to breathe through my nose, I do so knowing that were it not for them I might not even be here to worry about such things. And that really does put some things in perspective. I think you can take it for granted a bit. All I did was go to sleep and then recover and now I’m dealing with these ongoing annoying things that I didn’t have before that I may have to face forever…that becomes a reality that fills your current well of suffering (remember the quote from Viktor Frankl?) and your mind minimises the enormity of what you’ve been through and how tiny these struggles are in comparison. Though that doesn’t mean I’m going to settle for anything just because I’m grateful to be alive, I will always be pushing for things to be better. That’s just who I am.
I would like to send my surgeons a Christmas card every year, though they do a good job at staying disconnected from their patients – I have no way to contact them directly. Probably to make sure they don’t get an influx of Christmas cards every year.
And what would I say if I did?
‘Hi, just me, still alive, cheers’
‘Hi, thanks again for allowing me to make it to another Christmas’
‘Hi, I’m not into Christmas, but thanks for playing God for me that one time… Appreciate it’
Probably a good thing I can’t send them Christmas cards, there aren’t enough words to put on a small square of paper to express what I would want to say to them.
I only hope they never forget that they made the biggest impact on my life that anyone ever will. And I’m so eternally grateful. Though seriously, this scar tissue in my lip, can you not just fix it guys?! 😉