I stood and watched as the cart rolled through the wide double doors into Operating Room 1. It was my first day of shadowing a pediatric neurosurgeon and, as I waited for the doctor to enter, I tapped my feet to the rhythm of an invisible beat and wrung my gloved hands behind my scrubs-covered back. A young boy with short-cropped brown hair lie propped against the pillows; his back straightened as he entered and he looked around with a gleam in his wide blue eyes. He clutched the edges of his blanket as he looked about the white room. Glancing at each person in turn, the boy tilted his head as he passed by me.
He turned his attention to the bearded man next to him, dressed all in green with his face mask down.
“Lay back and relax,” he told the boy as he motioned to the nurses on either side. “You’ll only feel a little pinch.”
The boy lie back and, with his eyes closed, he almost looked serene — except for his lightly trembling hands, his scrunched-shut eyes and his quivering jaw. The nurses placed the breathing funnel over his nose and mouth as the anesthesiologist injected the contents of his syringe into the connected bag. After a minute, I saw all of the boy’s limbs slump against the bed and his head sink deeper into the pillow.
The nurses began to flurry around, pausing to check the boy’s heart rate and pulse displayed on the monitors at the top of the walls. As they conducted their business, I turned to the woman next to me. She wore the same green scrubs as the rest of the people in the room. With her mask pulled up to cover most of her face, all that was visible was a pair of light blue eyes and a name tag that read “Molly.”
She introduced herself as a nurse in-training at the Children’s Hospital. After exchanging pleasantries, I introduced myself as the day’s undergraduate shadow. She seemed particularly surprised that a freshman engaged in shadowing but approved of my exploration.
Both of us turned to see the double doors swing open again and Dr. T stride confidently inside. She was the shortest woman there, but she possessed a confidence that well matched her long career as a neurosurgeon. She turned to me as the others assisted her with her gloves and body apron.
“And how are you today?” she asked, brightly. After I responded, she began to explain the operation. All “suited up,” she stood on the footstool and began her work. I watched in morbid fascination as she turned on her cauterizing scalpel and began cutting into the boy’s scalp. A small amount of blood, no more than a spoonful or two, began to trickle as she dug deeper. She periodically ceased her cutting to mop up with a towel. This was one of the most shocking things I learned about surgery. I always considered the skull to be a precious object, a part of the body where every incision has to be made delicately and shallowly. To see a cut so wide taught me of the human skull’s vastness, its healing capabilities and of the deftness and almost roughness in normal operations.
It would be remiss to ignore the atmosphere. Dr. T talked throughout the whole procedure. She simultaneously spoke with nurses, techs and reps and monitored her chief resident.
“You know how it is,” she said in passing. “What you learn in medical school, you throw away when you enter residency.” While probably exaggerated, it still rang with a certain truth. Although the resident answered her theoretical questions about inserting a shunt, he still mistook precisely where he would incise and thread the catheter tube.
And, yet, even beyond that, what I realized as I watched Dr. T was that the atmosphere wasn’t overly tense, strained or even nervous. Instead, as I saw the doctor, nurses, residents and attendants talk to each other and as I heard the music playing softly in the background, I more fully understood a healer’s duty. It wasn’t the death-defying heroics that might be shown in movies, nor was it necessarily an incredibly mundane, monotonic series of patients. I instead saw Dr. T’s smile. Her interactions, too, showed me how much she valued collaboration in her work. And then I realized that just like any other profession, being a doctor is to truly love one’s duties.
And so as the boy was wheeled out of the operating room and the music in the room kicked up a notch in volume, I looked to the group of doctors and nurses in green scrubs. I observed their skill in deftly inserting the shunt. I observed their warm regard for each other in their conversations. But most important was what I observed when the young boy was wheeled into the Operating Room, 45 minutes prior: a sense of trust for all the professionals in the room, a trust that they could help him. Although he quivered when he was injected with the needle, he didn’t fight it. Seeing that trust and its fulfillment post-operation confirmed for me my desire to fulfill a doctor’s duty to heal. I resolved in the future to build that trust with my own patients. Thus, when Dr. T shook my hand goodbye for the day’s observation, I shook her hand back and said to myself, “Yes, this is what I want to do.”