It's who you are

Last Friday, my dad performed the last surgery of a career that has spanned over thirty years. By my conservative guess, based on a minimum of two scheduled surgeries per week plus countless emergency room calls, his total career count would have to be somewhere in the vicinity of 5000 operations. For the obvious reason that I have no place in an operating room, I never saw his work first hand, but I have looked over his shoulder at the never-ending x-rays of anonymous reconstructed knees, hips and hands. To me, they were bones and screws, plates and stitches. To him, they were his craft, his passion, his profound responsibility.

It is hard to understand, as a software engineer, what it means to be a surgeon. Most of the engineers I know weren't required to pour their souls into their studies in order to make it. We may have pulled the odd all-nighter, but none of us had to endure multi-year residencies with 72-hour work shifts. We rarely (if ever) have to make life-and-death decisions, much less in a split-second.

So demanding is the training to become a surgeon that for those who achieve it, being a surgeon is truly who they are. Not too many software engineers are software engineers the way that surgeons are surgeons. This makes it all the more difficult to say that it is time to stop, because what are you if you are not toiling under the responsibility that your patients have entrusted you with? What are you if you are not working with the scalpel and the volumes of experience that you have amassed?

I believe that when you retire from surgical practice, you are yet a surgeon. My dad was born a surgeon and some day he will die a surgeon. He is and has been many other things—a dad to me and my sister first and foremost—but the fire that burns in his eyes was lit for the day when he earned the right and the awesome responsibilities of surgical practice and it will never be extinguished. For the rest of his life, memories of the sleepless nights and hardest cases will stay with him along with the faces of the thousands of people who put their trust in him and were better for it.

Today, on his birthday, his office staff gave him a huge, handmade quilt; each panel depicted a milestone from his entire medical career. A week from Friday, my dad is being honored as Surgeon of the Year by the Connecticut Orthopedic Society. After all of that, he'll be back at his office practice and continuing his work as an independent medical examiner. Some day I imagine my dad might even decide to retire completely, but a part of his mind and his heart never will.

In my heart of hearts, one my dad's grandchildren (Linnea, Solomon, or any of the ones to follow) will discover that like their grandpa, they were born a surgeon. I certainly won't know what to do with them, but my dad will. He'll give them a piece of that fire to carry on through the long, hard hours, the many years of school, and the most difficult split-second decisions.

And if all of this was no indication—I am incredibly proud to have a dad who has accomplished so much and who has helped so many people.