I was ten years old when I made my first career decision. “I don’t want to be a doctor,” I told my parents one night at dinner. Both entertained and disappointed (they are Indian parents, after all), they asked me why. “Do you know doctors have to look at people’s pee? That’s gross! No way!” During a visit to the doctor earlier that day, I peed in a cup for the first time. Nuh-uh. No thanks.
Though I always respected (and slightly feared) my doctors, it is only recently that I could truly appreciate their impact on my well-being.
I met my orthopedic surgeon last summer after twisting my knee playing soccer. In our second meeting, he delivered the devastating news that I had torn my ACL and medial meniscus and would need surgery. “And, I have to warn you,” he added, “this is going to be a long journey. You’re young, healthy, and diligent so I’m not worried, but I just want to make sure I set your expectations.” The surgery went well, and I went in for a check-up every month following. “You’re my superstar patient!” he told me at the five-month mark.
But at month six, things didn’t look so super. Though I was diligent with physical therapy, I was regressing in my recovery—unable to fully bend or straighten my knee—and in significant pain. My surgeon diagnosed my condition as a cyclops lesion (localized anterior anthrofibrosis), a rare complication of ACL surgery. “It looks like you could use some help in the surgical setting,” he said.
At my request, we followed up on his diagnosis with a MRI. That evening, my surgeon called me as I was entering the subway. As his words entered my brain, I found myself walking backwards until I hit a wall, where I lowered myself to the ground. In addition to the cyclops lesion he predicted, “the MRI also shows edema—swelling—around your ACL. For whatever reason, the graft is unhappy.” The MRI report said my ACL was torn again. This was a difficult pill to swallow when I still wasn’t fully recovered from the initial tear.
“This is highly unlikely,” my surgeon insisted. MRIs tend to overstate matters of the ACL. “But unfortunately, we aren’t going to have the whole story until we’re actually in there.”
“So…How do we move forward?” In our expensive, complicated, and stressful world of healthcare, his response blew me away.
“I will do whatever is best for your knee.”
What followed was a week of sleepless nights and stress-filled days. And maybe an email or two to my surgeon from his “worrier patient.” I couldn’t eat or focus.
In the minutes before the surgery, my surgeon came to talk to me. “We’re completely prepared for any situation. We have an Achilles tendon if you need something bigger, a hamstring if we need something smaller, and regardless, when you wake up, everything will be taken care of.” In that vulnerable pre-operative moment, this white-coated professional who uses words like “edema” suddenly felt like a dependable friend. Someone I could unequivocally trust.
As a walker, runner, dancer, and soccer-player, my knee is my life.
What felt like minutes later (thank you anesthetics), I was waking up in the recovery room. My surgeon entered. “Things are looking good now,” he said. “You’ll be back to physical therapy in no time.” I had so many questions. He knew I would. “I also got some good photos and videos during the process,” he said with a smile. “That will help you understand what was going on and we can talk more about it when I see you later this week.”
Watching the videos for the first time, I couldn’t believe the care my surgeon had taken to ensure that I felt informed and confident about my knee health. “Doctors don’t usually do this,” my physical therapist told me. I’ve watched the videos almost every day since (sometimes forcing reluctant parties to join me).
Each time, I am struck by my surgeon’s empathy throughout this journey. His way of connecting with me at a human level. Though he has seen hundreds of cases like mine, he recognizes the uniqueness of this situation from my point of view. He feels the toll my injury, treatment, and recovery have taken on my life over the past year, and continually goes out of his way to lessen the emotional and physical strain where possible. He never lets me believe that I am “just another patient.”
No, I will never be a doctor, but my surgeon inspires me to be a better human — to constantly remind myself that everyone I interact with is another person, with emotions, needs, and expectations. To be someone that others can trust and depend on, as a friend and as a colleague.
The world needs more people like that.