A chosen path

This can’t be happening, I thought. We are 30 years old. I am a surgical resident interested in oncology, for God’s sake. But somehow there I was, staring at our new reality—a magnetic resonance imaging test result showing a large mass lesion in the right temporal lobe of my husband’s brain, nearly obliterating his ventricles, and lighting up the scan like a solar flare.

Although I had confidently walked cancer patients through their upcoming procedure many times before, assuring them that this fate was not their fault, resecting their disease, and caring for them in the postoperative period, I was suddenly paralyzed. I was no longer a surgical resident who thought she knew what it meant for patients and families to carry a diagnosis of cancer, but a wife who was about to live it every day by her husband’s side.

But surprisingly, it wasn’t then that I wanted to quit. I’d wanted to quit during my first three years of residency for less dramatic reasons.

Like the first 24-hour call shift of my internship. My phone rang so frequently that its battery died by hour 12. I frantically called my husband. “Bring my charger to the hospital!” As he pulled up to the front of the hospital, I lingered at the car window, tears welling in my eyes. “Take me home with you,” I uttered, overwhelmed.

Like the first time I thought I’d really hurt someone. As a young intern, I was convinced that my first independent decision—to give a patient 10mg of Lasix—was sure to push him into end-stage renal disease. Because of an ever-so-slight creatinine bump, I spent my post-call day in tears. How could I have chosen a career so fraught with worry, guilt, and complications?

Like when I have missed Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and holidays and weddings and birthdays, and when I have said I’d be home for dinner but never made it. Why do I sacrifice my life for others?

But I didn’t quit at any of those moments. And when quitting should have been my first thought—betrayed by the very field I have surrendered my life to studying—I didn’t think twice. Overcoming emotional adversity prepared me for the worst moment in my life and prepares me to handle the worst moments of my patients’ lives.

Surgery chose me. I know this because I tried hard to like other specialties—afraid of those things that made me want to quit. But because surgery chose me, I feel a duty to fulfill my destiny—to persevere because maybe I, like all of us in this most difficult of professions, was chosen for a reason. I don’t quit because each experience that makes me want to quit seems to be followed by a better reason to stay. Because of this path that I continue down, I am a better surgeon to my patients, a better wife to my husband, and a stronger role model to the others whom surgery has chosen.

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