I am a member of several surgical societies, and more than once I’ve extolled the importance of going to meetings as part of my personal definition of a “good” surgeon.
While I mostly enjoy meetings nowadays, it hasn’t always been easy. My first experiences at surgical society meetings were painful. I was 32 years old, just out of training, and didn’t know anyone at the meetings. Receptions were the worst. My only friend sometimes was either my host or my wife. I was surrounded by these old guys, most of whom were famous.
Among the highlights of my life was being invited to join the Western Surgical Association. The year I was elected, J. David Richardson was the President. He gave such a rousing speech that at the President’s Dinner I rallied the courage to speak to the great man. When I called him “Dr. Richardson,” he waved that off and insisted I call him “Dave.” Little did I know that Dave would become one of my personal heroes and play an important part in the path that led to my being in a position to write a column such as this.
I never thought that being at a meeting might save my own life. As a devoted member of the Western Surgical Association, I breezed into Phoenix last year for the annual meeting. But I wasn’t feeling so well. Typical of a surgeon, I’d been denying that the symptoms in my abdomen and back were anything other than arthritis. Also, like most surgeons, I’d been pushing the accelerator pedal of life to the floorboard for some months. I arrived at the hotel at one in the morning with a stomach ache that clearly was becoming serious.
I lay in bed wondering what to do. Surgeons don’t get sick! Calling 911 seemed like an invitation to a 6-hour ED experience during which I would be demoted from surgeon to “the patient in Room 9” in a town where I didn’t know many people. As a surgeon, I knew that belly pain of this magnitude was not something I wanted to entrust to a nonsurgeon who was just trying to get through another long shift. This was personal.
Here’s where being a member of a surgical society became more than an academic exercise. I was in a hotel with many of the finest surgeons in the world – and I knew many of them! Among the attendees was my very good friend Margo Shoup, a first-rate cancer surgeon from Chicago. I knew she had come in that day because we were to have dinner together the next night. Rather than call her at 0300, I waited until 6. She came right over and examined me. We decided on a plan. As is always the case at a surgical meeting, one of the surgeon members is the local arrangement person. In this instance, it was none other than James Madura, MD, Chief of MIS GI surgery at Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale. We called James and when my abdomen decided to go nuclear with pain, he drove me to his hospital in his own car and got me in their ED.
The rest of the story is pretty mundane. My diagnosis turned out to be temporarily serious but benign. It was serious enough that without good people treating me, I could have done poorly. James and his fine team took superb care of me. Almost all of us go into surgery with the intent to help others. We take that extraseriously when it’s one of “us.” I can imagine the increased pressure on James when he was treating a colleague and the entire rest of the Western Surgical Association knew it. He never even broke a sweat. I am so glad he was my surgeon. His chief resident Ryan Day, MD, spent extra time with me. I saw a bunch of other residents as well. They reminded me of my fellow residents many years ago – eager, bright, and hyperdedicated. Several members of the Western came by the hospital to see me and even reviewed my images and diagnosis with me. I felt like I had a whole family of physicians who were both my friends and my support system a long way from home. I cannot thank James, Margo, and the rest enough for all they did. It’s great to feel back to normal again as well.
So, I would suggest you join and participate in the surgical societies that you think are a good fit for you. Develop those important professional relationships. Such activity will do your patients a world of good – and just might save your own life.