Yesterday, a phone call from a surgeon reminded me how much I will miss Uzma’s gut feeling about people. And it taught me how little it can sometimes take to break a stereotype.

Before I recount the tale, I want to share an old joke that is somewhat of a cliché in medical circles. “What is the difference between God and a surgeon?” The answer is: “God doesn’t think he is a surgeon!” The implication is that surgeons are arrogant. The stereotype goes further. Surgeons are thought to have poor bedside manner and a low opinion of those who are not surgeons and thought to get away with it only because they don’t treat patients on an ongoing basis — after the surgery and its immediate aftermath, they are done.

Back to yesterday’s call. It was from the surgical oncologist who followed Uzma regarding her screening mammograms and breast ultrasounds, did her mastectomy over 5 years ago and then followed her regarding her periodic breast MRIs. He was the one who called Uzma on that fateful Saturday more than 3 years ago letting her know that the breast MRI had incidentally detected the spread of breast cancer to the liver. After that Uzma had to leave the world of surgical oncology for good.

Following her first appointment with this same surgeon a few years before her initial diagnosis, when she was still getting screening mammography, Uzma said to me, “Hope I never have to go under the knife, but I wouldn’t mind him being my surgeon. I can tell he is an inherently nice man and good physician.” At least 9 times out 10 her instinct about people was on the mark.

So, it’s no surprise that of all the physicians and nurse practitioners who examined and treated Uzma over the past 5 years, whether in our local hospital or at reputed one downtown, he was the only one who called me to offer condolence. He said, “I just heard today that Uzma had passed away. I am very sorry for your loss. I know I am preaching to the choir, but she was an extraordinary person, and it meant a lot to me to be her doctor.” Maybe I imagined this in my grief, but his voice quivered with sorrow.

My phone record shows that the call lasted a mere 3 minutes. And it meant the world to me, the grieving family member of his former patient – someone he had last treated seemingly eons ago in the journey of metastatic cancer. He made me feel significant. He made me think that my wife’s life and death were of meaning and significance to at least one person in the healthcare system. My heart overflows with gratitude for that.

To me, this one doctor, with this one phone call, also showed that conforming to stereotypes is a choice. As far as I am concerned, he forever broke his specialty’s stereotype. He didn’t just break it, it drove a truck through it. In 3 minutes!

May his tribe increase!

Postscript: For an update on this incident, read Update On Stereotype-breaking Surgeon


  1. I’ve heard the same quote when I was workimg as an RN. We nurses kept lists of the great, bad and ugly. It’s knowing demeanor during that first visit. A “sense” we pick up, if you will. This surgeon showed humanity that used to exist a long ago but, has sadly been lost by many today. I’m grateful he took time to show this humanity and called you for condolences. That you found comfort in knowing that her provider cared for her and your family. Indeed, May his tribe increase!

  2. Glad that a compassionate surgeon treated her and good people are thinking of her and you . May Allah make it easier on your family . Finished her book after she passed away . Very nicely written .

    Best ,

    Adeela M. Alizai ( class mate from med school )

    1. Adeela, thanks for your comment. If you don’t mind putting a review on Amazon, that would be great.

  3. My son passed away last year on October 20. He lived in CO Springs but was treated in Aurora, CO. We brought him home to IL on hospice in September. His sarcoma oncologist or surgical oncologist were available to us the weekend we left so we never got to say goodbye. However, his oncologist called us the Tuesday after we returned home, as soon as he found out. He spoke to both my son and myself. With both of us he cried. I’ve been a nurse for over a quarter of century; a hospice nurse for five years. I’ve seen some heartless souls in my career, but I have also seen souls so full of heart in our own personal cancer story. And, it was a long story. We’ve been blessed.

    1. Thanks for sharing your poignant story. Here’s hoping that with time the good memories of your son will help you overcome some of the grief of this terrible loss.

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