At around 3 p.m. one Friday afternoon, about ten years ago, I was sitting in front of a monitor, reviewing a child’s angiogram. We were operating on her next, and I wanted to refresh my memory.
I was at one of the busiest heart hospitals in the country. We averaged 12 operations every day. About a third of them were on children. As a specialist pediatric cardiac surgeon, I loved and enjoyed the work despite the long hours and high stress.
That day, our team was running behind schedule. Not by much, but enough for our anesthesiologist to get a bit anxious. She was a talented and skilled lady, and a good friend of mine. Walking up to me, she said:
“The patient’s ready. Are you going to get scrubbed?”
“Just a minute,” I said. “I haven’t yet seen this angio fully.”
And then, she spoke the words that would change the direction my career took from there onwards.
“It doesn’t matter if you have. The surgeon has seen it already.”
I got up, and walked slowly over to the wash area.
My heart was heavy as I went through the pre-operation ritual that has remained constant over time. As I gazed numbly at the foamy bubbles that lathered my forearms, the water sluicing down to wash them away along with all germs and dirt, leaving my hands sterile to assist at the long, complex heart operation to follow, the truth of her blunt statement gnawed at my insides.
She was right.
It didn’t matter if I saw that angiogram.
I wasn’t the lead surgeon. Someone else was. And he had seen it.
I don’t recall much of the next 4 hours. I assisted at the operation mechanically. All the while, I was pondering the important issue raised by her comment.
Through the long drive back home after we finished, and a restless night that followed, I kept thinking about it.
And by next morning, I had made up my mind.
Barely a fortnight later, I resigned my position to return to another, smaller hospital where I had once trained. To a unit which was, relatively speaking, poorly equipped and under-staffed. To an environment where I couldn’t hope to put to use more than a tiny fraction of my hard-earned training and knowledge from years spent at centers of excellence in the U.K. and Australia.
I returned because, here, it matters.
That I see an angiogram.
That I examine a patient.
That I counsel a family.
That I perform an operation.
I left because, there, I was redundant. Unnecessary. Replaceable.
A tiny cog in a big machine. Easily exchanged with any other cog. Not unique, needed, or significant.
Several things have changed in my professional career since that momentous decision. Through them all, I have never once regretted leaving.
The center I left has grown to a behemoth, carrying out 150 operations every week. Where I operate today, I’d be lucky to do that in a year!
The difference is that the few children I treat won’t get operated without me being in this place.
My presence is necessary, essential, required.
It should matter that YOU see.
That YOU do.
That YOU provide value, support, purpose to the project or group or organization where you are engaged in investing the rest of your life.
It should matter that YOU make meaning.