Throughout my rotations, I often wondered what it must have been like to train under the tutelage of Michael Debakey, a pioneer in cardiac surgery, or Harvey Cushing, the father of modern neurosurgery. I imagined myself scrutinizing a CT scan (or a plain X-ray in Cushing’s time), having these masters of medicine critique my differential diagnosis or being in the operating theater learning a new operative technique. I tried to imagine the immense satisfaction one must have felt to have their approval or even praise.
During my surgical rotation, I distinctly remember my attendings regaling us with stories from their days as newly minted residents and their interactions with the giants of their time. Aside from the frequent mythologizing that seemed to accompany every story, occasionally a pearl or two of wisdom would be yielded and I would walk away from the conversation wondering who and where are these great physiciansin my time.
Are they confined to the hallowed halls of Massachusetts General Hospital or the Mayo Clinic? Are they an endangered species relegated to the ivory towers of American medical education? As my rotation drew to a close, I was distraught by the fact I could not name an attending or resident with any serious conviction that I wanted to emulate. Perhaps I had set the bar slightly out of reach.
I was rotating at a small community hospital known more for its works of charity than its commitment to the advancement of medicine. I realize that how one defines a giant in any field is entirely subjective and that my examples above emphasize certain qualities: a commitment to medical advancements and a penchant for thinking outside of the box. In retrospect however, I may have been too restrictive with who I viewed as a giant.
Every day at this community hospital, I cared for some of the most vulnerable elements of our population: the poor and uninsured. I recall one patient with severe sleep apnea requiring a tonsillectomy. He had been turned away by five other surgeons before ending up in my mentor’s office. The patient had a myriad of other medical problems in addition to being uninsured.
When I asked my mentor why he decided to proceed with the surgery he replied: “This patient has been kicked around the medical system for far too long. Maybe it’s the idealist in me but the buck needs to stop somewhere.” His comments rekindled the idealism I once had upon entering medical school. Not a day went by on the surgical service where I did not encounter a similar situation: a patient on the fringes of the medical system finally crossing paths with a doctor willing to put the patient’s interests ahead of their own despite the liabilities.
As I continued to reflect, I realized that my laughably narrow definition of a great physician, a “giant,” needed broadening. While the mentors I had may not have been the forerunners in their field, they exemplified the virtues of compassion, sacrifice and humility that the field of medicine always requires. The unsung acts of humanity that unfolded before my eyes every day in clinic made them great physicians. I had indeed walked among giants.