“Don’t forget to mute your microphone!”
“Can everyone hear me?”
The sounds of 2020 echo in the electrons of the Internet, far different from previous years where cavernous convention centers reverberated with the tapping of business shoes and the shuffle of crowds, where the community of weekly education sessions was barely a thought compared with presented data and examination scores, where the luxury and safety of touch were taken for granted.
How terrifyingly close we, the medical community, got to our own mortality during the past 19 months. And how precious the lessons to connect, captivate, and create in adversity.
Name a platform for online engagement, and a surgeon somewhere has used it now to present to his, her, or their colleagues. With varying levels of success, all of us have participated in an online morbidity and mortality conference, a continuing medical education (CME) lecture, or even telemedicine follow-up visits, a way of communicating with patients nigh unheard of in 2019.
Was the transition smooth? No. We have endured “Zoom-bombers,” server crashes, and sharing blunders. Has it been pretty? No. We have sat through bad angles, terrible scripts, unfortunate screen messages. But we also have engaged more of our colleagues concurrently in real time than ever before. Most of the organizations to which I belong are hosting regular CME events with live components for crowds who never would have had the ability, time, or, frankly, courage to become active in an online sphere before the enforced practice of the last year. These connections extend across time zones and international borders, across generational gaps and resource variances. I have more regular contact with colleagues in my subspecialty of surgery than ever before; we routinely discuss practice differences, challenging cases, and new, exciting innovations that one group or another has been using. As fields of surgery become increasingly specialized, the ability to connect in this fashion can be a lifeline not just for patients but for surgeons themselves. These innovations are not just medical, however. Distinct educational approaches, devices, and programs have been showcased with the movement into this virtual world, allowing for interesting discussions about how we can better inspire different types of learners.
“Wow, I never would have thought to do that!”
“We never see that problem here—thank you for sharing!”
“How great to see everyone—looking forward to next week’s talk!”
The last year and a half also has made it explicitly clear how important human contact—real physical contact—truly is. In a field in which we touch the (sometimes literal) core of our patients, the enforced distances of safety were heartbreaking. Technology cannot take the place of holding a mother’s hand, a brother’s arm, a child’s head, as illness ravages their bodies. Too many people died without human touch, without the solace we all deserve at the end of our lives. Too many of our colleagues went without the physical comfort we provide each other through the difficult shifts and long weeks—the hugs and back slaps, the closeness that provides a sense of quiet solidarity.
So, with the tremendous technological engagement achieved over the past 19 months comes an equally profound realization that balance requires the pitter-patter of shoes in a hallway, the spontaneous laughter of two friends catching up at the conference entryway, and the reverberation of untuned microphones at a live panel session.