So much of what I have learned in my life and who I have become is derived from my rigorous surgical training. This has had such a monumental impact on shaping the person I am, that it is hard to over-emphasize. I have found that many of these lessons are applicable far beyond the hospital wards and the operating room. Many of these philosophical doctrines can be of value to virtually any human being and in numerous areas of their lives.
When I became the Chief Resident in general surgery at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center many years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to work with a man of great intellect, skill, and renown. His name was Dr. Donald Brief, and he was the Chairman of the Department of Surgery. He was not only brilliant intellectually but also gifted in his manual dexterity and surgical judgment. He had risen to the top of his profession for a good reason. As the Chief Resident, it was my responsibility to work with Dr. Brief on all of his surgical cases for 4 months. This was an extraordinary and immersive experience.
Just before our dedicated time together, Dr. Brief asked me to meet him for breakfast very early one morning to chat. We sat in a small café in the main lobby of the medical center, and he gave me a reasonably thorough orientation to our imminent experience together. He laid out the general outline of the 4-month apprenticeship and made it clear that he had high expectations of me.
After finishing our breakfast, it was time to walk up to the operating room together and get to work. But before getting up to leave, the old sage had one salient point of wisdom he wished to share with me. He said, “John, in the next few months I’m going to show you how to stay out of trouble in the operating room. I’m going to leave it up to all the other surgeons to show you how to get out of trouble in the operating room.”
I understood what he meant immediately. It was a phenomenal point of view and personal philosophy which he shared with me that day. It reveals a perspective which emphasizes the importance of being careful in how you do things, not just in the operating room, but in life in general.
As we went forward during this extraordinary surgical experience, Dr. Brief would remind me of this every morning at the scrub sink before the first surgery of the day. He wanted his message to stick. He wanted this way of thinking to take root deep in my subconscious mind, and that’s what I want to share with you.
It’s too easy to be lazy or irresponsible in life. Then, from those actions, you might find yourself in trouble, and then have to find a way to struggle your way out – if that’s at all possible.
For example, it would be far better not to find yourself 25 or, worse yet, 75 pounds overweight. That’s big trouble, and most of us know that getting out of that kind of problem is very difficult. It will take a lot of hard work and a long time. Similarly, it’s preferable not to get into significant financial debt with your credit cards. Unraveling a mess like that can be a very steep uphill climb. Also, it would be desirable to brush and floss all your teeth twice a day, not just the ones you wish to keep. Replacing missing teeth is a much more significant challenge than maintaining the ones you were born with.
One of the most common places this philosophy can be of great help is in school. There is nothing worse academically than falling behind early in the semester. Trying to lift a 75 average to a 95 average is very difficult and at some point becomes impossible. The serious student understands how critically important it is to get off to a strong start and then maintain an A average throughout the marking period.
Yes, Dr. Brief was a wise and experienced man, but you don’t have to be a surgeon to learn from him. I hope you can take this message and apply it to the areas of your life where you feel it will be helpful. Now, sometimes even the greatest surgeon gets into unwanted and troublesome bleeding in the operating room. And, sometimes even world-class athletes put on an extra ten pounds.
We all have to deal with such problems for time to time. That’s simply the reality of life as a human being. That being said, the more we can avoid life’s pitfalls, the less energy we will need to expend on corrective measures and the less energy we will have available to put into building a truly exceptional life.