“C’mon, doc, can we get this show on the road?” the anesthesiologist asks optimisti- cally. I couldn’t have planned a longer cystectomy if I had tried. The abdominal adhesions were
a tangled mess. The bulky tumor was more invasive
than anticipated. The pelvic lymph nodes bled as if
avenging the dissection of their brethren.
Across the table, Andy—my medical student who
has looked forward to observing this operation all
week—is nervously preparing to close the midline
Tick, tick, tick. The clock taunts us with each passing second.
Andy fumbles with the needle driver.
I hear a chorus of suggestions: Why don’t you close,
doc? Yeah, so we can get out before midnight. He can
sew next time!
Andy sets the instruments down, offering them to
My mind conjures a sepia-toned memory. I was
standing at the operating table. It had been a long day.
Everyone else’s eyes were on me, the surgery clerk,
while my own eyes stared blankly at the instruments
in my hands, betraying the hours I had spent practicing.
“We’ll never get out of here tonight if he keeps this
up,” the attending surgeon mumbled to the resident
opposite me. “I need those clinic notes dictated, and
you still have to see the consults.”
I passed the needle driver to the resident.
“You finish this up, and let him practice some other
time,” the attending directed.
The resident paused. “He’s already practiced with
me, and he’s done a good job,” he replied. Then to me,
assuredly, unwaveringly, “It’s your turn to operate.”
My surgical mask hid a smile that spread unexpect-
edly across my face. I was overcome by a sudden sense
of belonging. Yes, I was the slowest in the room; I might
make a mistake and have to start over; the fastest way
out was to move on. But what a thrill to have that
proverbial hand on my shoulder, to be given a chance
to try! Readying my hands and sharpening my focus,
I felt for the first time what it means to be a surgeon.
My mind clears; my attention returns. I place the
needle driver back in Andy’s hand.
“Go on, Andy,” I say, echoing the resident who had
given me my chance, “It’s your turn to operate.”
As his needle weaves back and forth, I’m reminded
of the mentors who stepped aside—or stepped up—
so that I could become more skilled, experienced, and
compassionate. Many of us remember a calling to
surgery and its appeal to those steady of hand and cou-
rageous of heart. What is not as evident—and what I’ve
come to understand as I grow from student to teacher
and from trainee to surgeon—is that our transforma-
tion is anchored by those who guide our hands to be
steady and inspire us with their courage.
As Andy ties the final knot, his mask barely concealing a proud smile, I feel profoundly honored by the
commitment of my mentors and once again humbled
by the promise of our profession. ♦
Paying it forward:
by Kevin Koo, MD, MPH, MPhil
RAS-ACS ESSAY CONTEST
When the mentee
becomes the mentor