As I sit down to write this column, I reflect on the news that my mentor and friend, Norman W. Thompson, M.D, FACS, passed away yesterday. I had the good fortune to spend 1 year as an endocrine surgery fellow with Dr. Thompson at the University of Michigan in 1995-96. That year was certainly the most significant of my training in terms of defining my professional life as an endocrine surgeon. However, as I think back on my time with Dr. Thompson, I am struck by how much more I learned from him than how to take out a thyroid or a parathyroid or manage multiple endocrine neoplasia.
Dr. Thompson was an excellent technical surgeon, and he would have had a tremendous career helping thousands of patients if that was all that he had done. However, he was much more than an excellent technician. He was also a great doctor. In order for a surgeon to be a great doctor, it is necessary to be technically excellent, but that alone is not sufficient. I believe that what makes a surgeon a great doctor is the combination of technical mastery with outstanding interpersonal skills and ethically sound clinical judgment. Dr. Thompson had all of that, and he was exceptionally kind.
Kindness is not a word that we commonly use in describing surgeons today. In an era of surgeons being pressured to see more patients and generate more RVUs [relative value units], it is unusual to hear kindness mentioned as an essential attribute of a great surgeon. However, Dr. Thompson’s kindness was immediately apparent to all who spent time with him. He treated each patient as a unique individual. In addition, he treated his trainees and his colleagues in Ann Arbor and around the world with respect and incredible humility. He was generous with his time and was always approachable no matter how inexperienced the surgeon asking him a question. Dr. Thompson was kind to all of us and made us feel that he valued spending time with us.
What does kindness have to do with a column that traditionally focuses on ethical issues in the practice of surgery? Although acting with kindness is not the same as acting in an ethical manner, I believe that there is more overlap of the terms than we often imagine. The kind surgeon is the one who treats people – whether they are patients or colleagues – as though they matter. The ethical surgeon respects the patient’s wishes and acts to benefit the patient as much as possible in all circumstances. I am certain that I have met ethical surgeons who were not kind, but I have met very few kind surgeons who are not ethical.
As someone who has spent significant time and energy in the last 19 years as a surgery faculty member trying to teach ethics, I am also struck by a clear truth. Actions always speak louder than words. It may be valuable to talk about the ethical principles that may come to play in a particularly difficult surgical case. Defining the competing interests and assessing the patient’s wishes are important components of the ethical practice of surgery. However, no amount of discussion of these issues can substitute for the value of behavior. Treating patients and colleagues with kindness and respect is modeling the behaviors of an ethical surgeon – perhaps learned from a wise and thoughtful mentor.
Dr. Thompson was an excellent role model for me and so many others in how he treated patients and everyone around him. As I see patients and perform surgery, I still hear myself saying many of the same things that he said many years ago. His genuine expressions of optimism before difficult operations, honesty in communicating, and sadness when things did not go well were tremendous examples to me of how a great doctor treats those around him. These lessons that I learned from Dr. Thompson have influenced my practice significantly, and I am grateful for the opportunity to try to model them on a daily basis.
Although I remain convinced that formal curricula in ethics and professionalism remain important in the education of today’s surgeons, it is valuable to remember the impact that the behaviors of those we respect have on us. Perhaps we surgeons more than other physicians are molded by the people who train us, but there is no question that the ethical behaviors of our teachers and mentors will have a greater impact than any lecture or manuscript. I want to acknowledge and commemorate the kindness and ethical behaviors that Dr. Thompson modeled daily for all who were fortunate enough to work with him.