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When is a Surgeon not a Surgeon?

I met Karen as a third year orthopedic resident while rotating on the Orthopedic Oncology Service. She was suffering from a rare tumor of the sacrum called a chordoma. Unfortunately for her, the tumor had spread up and down her spine and into her brain. I was her primary link to our oncologist and it was left to me to take care of her needs on the floor after she was notified dryly of her probable poor outcome.


She was overcome with emotion and spent most of the day crying. I walked into her room twice that day and the first time I left quickly because I was very uncomfortable. But the second time for whatever reason, I came into the room and sat with her, held her hand and listened. Not thinking I had done anything unusual, my last memory of her after she left the hospital was my chairman who took me aside and told me that the patient had written him about how compassionate and caring I was to her. She wrote that letter from a hospice knowing that she wasn’t going to live.


That particular moment for me has always reminded me that surgeons can do more. That we can inspire our patients more. That what happens in an operating room and in a clinic are deeply affected by the nature of the relationship between patient and physician. It is because of Karen that we put compassion first, that we place patient education first, and patient satisfaction first. And so when is a Surgeon not a Surgeon? When our patient needs something more, compassion, support, concern, a willing ear, and sometimes just a friend.

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