Update On Stereotype-breaking Surgeon

The day after the incident I described in my previous post, the surgeon reached out to me letting me know that he had ordered Uzma’s book. I shared my blog post with him. He thanked me and said this:

“Your words are too kind. I like to think I am not like most surgeons. My father was a family doctor. My mother, brothers and I could not believe how many of his patients went to his wake and funeral. None knew us. It was because they knew how much he cared for them.”

“I think most surgeons have difficulty really empathizing with patients and families. Maybe it (avoiding empathizing) makes it easier to cut another human’s body to make them well. I don’t know.”

I got two things from this interaction.

First, and most importantly, to what extent did this physician’s experience of his father’s funeral left a mark on him? The compassion he experienced in his time of loss probably made him more likely to show the same for his patients and their families. In that sense, paying it forward with small acts of love and compassion can create a virtuous cycle. Just as those patients of his father don’t get to see how he is treating his patients, we may not get to see the results of our compassion, but they are there. To the extent that this may be true, it is a lesson in showing compassion to others without caring about its outcome. It may end up meaning a lot to someone years later.

Second, his tentative explanation for why surgeons may have trouble empathizing makes sense to me. Modulating one’s emotional connection to a lower level than a primary care doctor is probably wise for a surgeon. Though, as I noted in my previous post, he was the only physician, not the only surgeon, calling to offer condolences. Something for which I will be forever grateful.

Postscript: After writing my last post, I thought I should have revealed the surgeon’s name. Both Uzma and I always thought that we should be at least as prepared to write reviews of good experiences as we are in writing reviews of negative experiences. I am glad that I had the interaction that led to this follow up post. Because the surgeon shared his personal story, I did obtain his permission before letting you, the reader, know. He is Ermilio Barrera, MD and this is his official webpage.

A Surgeon Breaks A Stereotype In 3 Minutes

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