Heart Surgeon

Would you prefer a doctor who is kind, or one who is clever? My patients don’t have this choice but many of you will be in search of a doctor just as your body is now in search of a disease. What qualities do you look for in a doctor? Do you prefer witty or warm, wise or wonderful, well-read or well-meaning? Your response reflects much about your perspective and expectations of the medical profession.

As a tadpole of a physician in medical school, it was explained to me that medicine is a three legged stool, a leg each of judgment, skill and knowledge. Not emphasized, nor ever taught in medical school, was compassion. Kindness and empathy, however, are indispensable in a profession so intimately entwined with poignant moments of illness, heartbreak and loss. As Patch Adams discovered, the medical world can be stiffly scientific and lacking in the basic humanities of humour, empathy and compassion. Computers may one day diagnose and even treat most illnesses, but they can never replace the warm human touch.

Doctors may not necessarily be the softest of human beings. The competition for medical school is rough. Emphasis is put on marks rather than character. Respect for others or dedication to humanity are not graded. Of 3000 applicants to my alma mater, only 84 were accepted. (No doubt you are wondering how I made it, but I can tell you that well-placed video cameras and a wiseguy named Moose played a major role). With a requirement of very high marks even for consideration, pre med is a mad, often cutthroat, competition. Search for the higher marks may require intensive studying and restudying, leaving social skills aside to be developed when taking a break to brush your teeth.

Thomas was an inquisitive eight month old born with tetralogy of Fallot, a condition in which the various pipes entering and exiting the heart get all mixed up. As a medical student working in the cardiac surgery ward in Ottawa, I admitted Tom to the heart unit in preparation for life saving surgery the next day. His parents, though obviously concerned, were quite hopeful that in the hands of Canada’s (and one of the world’s) preeminent heart surgeons, Dr. Wilbert Keon, Tom would no longer be blue and could start growing normally. I was permitted to assist in the surgery, meaning as a medical student I got to hold a retractor so long that my fingers are only now starting to unfold. A few hours after the seemingly successful operation, I strode around a corner to a scene I’ll never forget. Dr Keon was sitting on the floor, his arm wrapped around the shoulder of Tom’s mother, both in tears. Tom’s dad was standing in stunned silence beside them and I knew that something had gone terribly wrong. Tom, in fact, had not survived the perilous post-operative period. To this day, when I think of compassion I think of this superstar of heart surgeons sitting on the floor, crying.

Compassion is not taught in any course, but rather is developed over many years of practice. It must be taught in the home. Many parents go to great lengths to ensure their children will grow to be clever and multi-talented, but to what lengths do they go to teach their children empathy, service and tenderness.

Opportunities abound to exercise kindness every day, whether in or out of the hospital. Volunteers, for example, are a genuine, wonderful breed of human who reap the benefits of giving of themselves thus verifying their own existence. I often encourage those patients who are discouraged or even depressed to get involved in serving others for no reward or recognition and find a deeper, richer explanation of life. Those who lose themselves in the service of others invariably are happier and more at peace. They return to thank me for being so clever as to think of this remedy, but I tell them that I’d one day prefer to be simply thought of as – kind.

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