“For Me There Are Mountains.”
This is the title of a poem written by a college friend. It’s been almost 30 years, and I have yet to come across words that better define my life, words that immediately resonated with my soul and “understood” me — understood that for me, mountains symbolize at once life’s challenges and rewards, and understood that “there are” is neither choice nor conviction, there just are.
For me there are mountains … From the very beginning, I was born into a challenging situation. The day I came into the world my biological mother, who accepted that she would not be able to raise me, placed me for adoption. Of course, I was too young to understand the potential repercussions and, even if I had, I suppose I should have been thankful just to have made it that far. However, I soon won the ultimate “life lottery” when I was adopted by the world’s most loving, supportive parents, who wanted nothing more than to provide for a child. All of my opportunities and life successes can be traced back to that defining moment. Whenever I recognize feelings of hubris sneaking in, I remind myself that I could just as easily have been a “lost soul” if not for my parents.
For me there are mountains … I have always been at my best when facing challenges. Other than my personal relationships, the defining aspects of my life have come through hard work and overcoming challenges — not only because hard work leads to rewards, but also because, at least for me, hard work is the reward. It is while climbing our mountains that we are at our best; reaching the summit is nothing if not for the struggle. Some of my personal “mountains” have been earning a degree in electrical engineering/premed, graduating from a top medical school, surviving seven years of residency and becoming a neurosurgeon, building a successful medical practice, serving as chief of surgery, training for and completing Ironman Hawaii and the Boston marathon among others, developing medical devices, helping form a startup company, and yes, literally climbing some of the worlds highest mountains.
For me there are mountains … Medicine is challenging — and that is as it should be. Unfortunately, it has become more challenging due partly to ever-growing regulations and the litigious bias of society and our political leaders. Of course, we can and should aspire to combat these influences; however, we can also find ways to make ourselves better and more efficient, and to overcome obstacles that take our focus away from patient care. In my case, one example involved hiring first one and then a second physician assistant. They allow me to focus my time and energy on patient care and surgery, thus minimizing my “busy work”.
For me there are mountains … Being a surgeon is difficult but it is also an incredibly rewarding career. What makes being a surgeon difficult, for me, is not just the long hours and ever increasing expectations, but the unique stress of having to always be “on your game”, having to aspire to perfection, knowing that even one “mistake” will result in harm to a patient who has entrusted me with their care.
How do I function with this constant stress? By adopting the mantra “I shall do my best.” Of course these words carry their own responsibility, but they help me focus and control the things that I can control, and not be overwhelmed by infinite possible circumstances. I have also learned in surgery to avoid the trap of “wishful thinking.” When a problem arises, rather than wasting energy on wishing that things were different, I focus on solving the problem. This is one of many steps to recognizing that any adverse situation can be viewed as an opportunity to overcome a challenge.
For me there are mountains… Life is challenging, and I love it! I hope that you also have your mountains.
Jeffrey S. Henn is a neurosurgeon. This article originally appeared in Fulfilled Physicians.
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