Feet First

“It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.” - Sir William Osler

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    Monday, January 08, 2007
    Memorial Service

    He was perhaps the best surgeon I've ever known. (I say this based on my dad's criteria, and believe me my dad knows a good surgeon when he sees one.) I've known him since starting with The Firm ten years ago. At that time he was contracted with us, but not a member of The Firm; he was by far my favorite surgeon of all those we worked with. A few years later, he joined us for real. I was overjoyed, and so was he, I believe.

    He was truly a pleasure to work with. He did great work, always sent consult notes promptly, called with any questions... I think he truly liked and/or respected internists. (For those who are wondering, surgeons and internists are like oil and vinegar in a salad dressing. You need them both, but they don't get along that well, generally speaking.)

    I still remember this one patient: At the time I examined her, she had just had a 'normal' mammogram, but I found a lump on her exam. To play it safe I sent her to The Surgeon. (I do not wish to betray his or his family's privacy so I will continue to refer to him in this manner.) He examined her, agreed with my concerns, did a biopsy. He sent me the results by email - the woman had cancer - then added this comment at the bottom, gratis: "I think you saved her life."
    I read this the next morning and burst into tears. At the time our medical director had the office next door to me. "Is there something wrong?" she asked with concern; "No," I stammered, and showed her the email.

    She was clearly struck by it. "That's really wonderful," she commented. "Have you told him?"

    "No, but I will."

    The hell of it is, I can't remember if I did tell him. This was several years ago. I hope I did; he certainly deserved it and more.

    Anyway. He was found dead on a weekday morning, at the age of forty-nine, four days before Christmas. The entire group, staff and MD's, was knocked flat on its collective ass. We could not believe it; we cannot believe it still.

    The hospital held a service for him on January 5. The service in itself is not so unusual in that we routinely get two or three emails a week regarding Members Emeritus who have, as they say, Passed On. But this guy? No way. No one would have expected it. He was, as I say, 49 and had no medical problems as far as I know.

    I attended not because I looked forward to anything special beyond the usual 'oh, he was such a wonderful guy' but because I wanted to do it specifically for him. I mean if I were to, shall we say, cack it I would like to think that those I had worked with would take the trouble to show up for the service, just to make the gesture and all.

    But so much more happened than I had expected. Our CEO, clearly moved, gave the first speech and then yielded the floor to others. The next speaker was a plastic surgeon whom I have always viewed as something of a hardass, but he shared the most wonderful memories of this gentleman that you could ever have imagined; I would never have visualized Plastic Surgeon Guy choking up on a podium, but that's exactly what he did. It turned out that The Surgeon had been his chief resident when he was an intern (I had not known this).

    The next speaker was The Surgeon's partner who had been signed as a member of The Firm on his (The Surgeon's) recommendation about three years ago. He gave an equally wonderful speech with warm remembrances of him. He's pretty stoic, but he choked up when he shared with us his memory of The Surgeon shaking his hand across the table at the end of a case and saying, "Good job."

    The next two speakers were anesthesiologists - did I mention the oil-and-vinegar simile already? all right, I have - who worked with TS on a regular basis. For me this was the most moving part of the entire service; these two physicians painted such a beautiful verbal picture of their working day and how their association with TS had made it more enjoyable. TS had a regular shift in the outpatient surgical center on Fridays, and they both said that he made Friday their favorite day of the working week. One of the anesthesiologists even said that after hearing the news, "I didn't know if I would ever be able to work on Fridays again." They explained that TS had an "update list" for his co-workers that grew from a few to over a dozen. He'd ask everyone how they were and what was going on in their lives; Assistant One ("the delinquent"), Assistant Two ("E"), one of the anesthesiologists ("Butter")... it never seemed to end. And there was always room for everyone, even the pet of a co-worker. Everybody okay? Yeah, everybody is. Good.

    I didn't know, I thought. Would someone be able to say this about me if I were to die tomorrow? Probably not. I'd like to think so, but probably not.

    Not a bad resolution for a new year; make sure your co-workers would be able to say stuff like this if you were hit by a bus tomorrow.




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