In surgery, the healing process begins with a cut, an incision, the tearing of flesh. We have to damage the healthy flesh in order to expose the unhealthy. It feels cruel and against common sense, but it works. You risk exposure for the sake of healing, and when it’s over, once the incision has been closed, you wait. You wait and hope that your patient will heal. That you haven’t in fact, just made everything worse.
Question: When was the last time a complete stranger took off her clothes in front of you, pointed to a big purple splotch on her back, and asked, “What the hell is this thing?” If you’re a normal person, the answer is hopefully “never”. If you’re a doctor, the answer is probably about five minutes ago. People expect doctors to have all of the answers. The truth is we love to think that we have all of the answers too. Basically doctors are know-it-alls until something comes along that reminds us we’re not.
We spend our whole lives worrying about the future, planning for the future, trying to predict the future, as if figuring it out will cushion the blow. But the future is always changing. The future is the home of our deepest fears and wildest hopes. But one thing is certain when it finally reveals itself. The future is never the way we imagined it.
This is not general surgery on a miniature scale. These are the tiny humans. These are children. They believe in magic. They play pretend. There is fairy dust in their IV bags. They hope, and they cross their fingers, and they make wishes, and that makes them more resilient than adults. They recover faster, survive worse. They believe.
Patients see us as gods or they see us as monsters. But the fact is, we’re just people. We screw up, either way. Even the best of us, have our off days. Still we move forward. We don’t rest our laurels or celebrate the lives we’ve saved in the past. Because there’s always some other patient that needs our help. So we force ourselves to keep trying, to keep learning. In the hope that, maybe, someday we’ll come just a little bit closer to the gods our patients need us to be.
We may not like it but it really is important to stop every once in a while, get out of your own head and see the bigger picture. Actually find out that you were looking things all wrong can be sort of liberating. And suddenly you see new potential, new posibilities we’ve never seen it before and that’s all fine when a hopeless situation suddenly looks good. Unfortunately sometimes it goes the other way.
To do our jobs we have to believe defeat is not an option. That no matter how sick our patients get, there’s hope for them. But even when our hopes give way to reality, and we finally have to surrender to the truth, it just means we’ve lost to today’s battle, not tomorrow’s war. Here’s the thing about surrender, once you do it, actually give in, you forget why you were fighting in the first place.
Forgive and forget. That’s what they say. It’s good advice, but it’s not very practical. When someone hurts us, we want to hurt them back. When someone wrongs us, we want to be right. Without forgiveness old scores never settle. Old wounds never heal, and the most we can hope for is that someday we’ll be lucky enough to forget.
Ask most people what they want out of life and the answer is simple – to be happy. Maybe it’s this expectation though of wanting to be happy that just keeps us from ever getting there. Maybe the more we try to will ourselves to states of bliss, the more confused we get – to the point where we don’t recognize ourselves. Instead we just keep smiling – trying to be the happy people we wish we were. Until it eventually hits us, it’s been there all along. Not in our dreams or our hopes but in the known, the comfortable, the familiar.
We all get at least one good wish in a year over the candles on our birthday. Some of us throw in more, on eyelashes, fountains, lucky stars. And every now and then, one of those wishes come true. So what then? Is it as good as we hoped? Do we bask in the warm glow of our happiness or do we just notice we’ve got a long list of other wishes waiting to be wished.