An excerpt from Playing God: The Evolution of a Modern Surgeon.
A woman, call her Betsy, comes to see me. Betsy is in her early sixties and horribly unhealthy. She walks with a cane, each step she takes slow and painful. It hurts to watch her walk. Betsy has undergone a quadruple bypass, survived renal cancer, and weighs 240 pounds, even though she has lost 150 pounds after a recent gastric bypass surgery. She also has a history of diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorder, leading me to believe she may be bipolar. She currently takes twenty different medications a day. She is, what we call in the medical profession, a train wreck.
Huffing, her face pulsing red, she lowers herself into a chair and then takes a count of twenty to catch her breath. She looks me over. Her lips tremble. I think she is about to cry.
“You’re my last hope,” Betsy says. “Everybody else has turned me down. Will you help me?”
“I’ve seen a dozen other surgeons,” she says. “They all sent me away.”
“So,” I say, “tell me what’s going on.”
Betsy clears her throat, sighs, and lets it all out, whoosh, in one frantic breath. “I had the surgery and lost all this weight, and then I had a tummy tuck, and it went wrong. Everything fell apart, like, everything fell apart. I developed a terrible infection, and I was in the hospital on IV antibiotics for, like, two months. Now my tummy is completely destroyed. I have constant, chronic, terrible pain. I can barely walk. I have this horrible, disgusting scar tissue. I’m disabled, see? I can’t do anything.”
She stops to catch her breath.
Betsy snatches a tissue from the box, blows her nose, honks, fights to keep from bursting into tears.
“Can you continue?” I ask her.
She nods. “At first I thought the tummy tuck was OK, but two days after the surgery, I got an infection, and huge parts of my stomach turned black.”
“Turned black?” I say and feel myself frown.
“I kept going back to have the plastic surgeon cut out the dead tissue. And that’s when I got some kind of staph infection or flesh-eating bacteria.”
“Holy cow,” I say, amazed she’s still alive.
“It’s been, like, five months now and there’s a huge chunk gone from my tummy and the whole area just hurts constantly.”
I nod at her stomach. “Do you mind if I take a look?”
She changes into a gown, returns, and I examine her abdomen. To begin with, her stomach protrudes, hangs over her waist like a massive beer belly. The stomach area itself is both horribly scarred and socked in. I look further and see a kind of trench as well as charred skin, almost as if Betsy is a burn patient. It’s basically a mess.
Betsy grips the tip of her cane. “I know. It’s disgusting. I can barely walk. I’m in constant pain. I can’t play with my grandkids. My husband won’t even look at me.”
Betsy begins sobbing uncontrollably.
“I’m…deformed,” she sputters between sobs. “I have no life.”
“Please, Doctor Youn,” Betsy says, her eyes soaked with tears. “You’re my last hope. I have nowhere else to go. Please help me.”
“I… I will.”
“Oh, my God, thank you.”
Betsy lowers her head and cries even harder.
I take her hands.
And now the strange part.
I know I’m not alone.
I actually feel God telling me to help her.
I just do.
I also feel strangely calm and composed.
I know that I have to help this woman and that it will be OK, despite her litany of woes and illnesses and messed-up surgeries and the sheer odds stacked against her, almost guaranteeing some kind of deadly complication. A complication that I’ll be held responsible for. But I’m no longer worried about me. This is bigger than me.
It feels like more than the right thing.
It feels like the only thing.
I know I have to do it.
God is telling me that this woman needs my help.
“My insurance,” Betsy mumbles. “I don’t know how much, if anything, it will cover.…”
“We’ll submit it,” I say. “Whatever it covers, great. But even if it doesn’t cover anything, don’t worry. It’s fine. It doesn’t matter. I’m not gonna charge you.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Betsy says, and she cries louder, her sobs rising to an unprecedented level of volume and intensity.
Finally, she’s able to calm herself, and I say, “No promises, OK?”
“I know,” she says. “No promises.”
The night before Betsy’s surgery, I pray.
I ask God to please help me to help Betsy. I thank Him for my experience and my training and my skill as a surgeon, and I pray for Him to watch over Betsy during the operation and to please, please, keep any complications to a minimum.
And then I try to sleep.
It’s funny, this whole idea of playing God.
Doctors don’t have to play God, because patients routinely put them, especially surgeons, in that position. I always remind myself that in fact, it’s very much the opposite. Not only am I not God, nor should I play God, but I need God to help me.
Feeling at peace, I drift off to sleep.
During Betsy’s surgery, which takes four hours, I not only feel God’s presence the whole time, but I feel His hands guiding me. I complete the procedure, correcting Betsy’s tummy tuck, cleaning it up, smoothing it out, without a hitch. She recovers without a hint of a complication. I follow up with her three weeks later—everything looks good—and a month after that, she arrives in my office, walking without a cane, holding a carrot cake she’s baked for me.
“So nice of you,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Kind of the least I could do for saving my life.”
Her bottom lip trembles.
“Yesterday I played with my granddaughter, and for the first time in two years, I could hold her in my lap.”
Her eyes well up.
“What made you do it?”
I look at her. “I don’t know what you mean. Do what?”
“Take a chance on me. Take the risk that nobody else would.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I just knew I had to. I had faith that I was meant to do it, and everything would be all right.”
“Well, I’ll never be able to adequately thank you,” she says, shaking her head at the carrot cake, full payment for the procedure since her insurance company turned her down. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure the carrot cake is delicious, although I have a policy to never eat anything baked by patients.
“Some doctors…” Betsy says, removing the wrapping from the carrot cake and cutting herself a piece. She offers me a slice.
I smile, shake my head, and mouth Later.
“Especially these surgeons,” Betsy says again, her cheeks puffed out with carrot cake, “are so high and mighty. They think they’re God. Not you.”
“No,” I say. “I don’t think I’m God. Far from it.”
What the hell.
I reach over and grab a slice of that carrot cake.
It is delicious.
“I’m just a doctor,” I say.
Anthony Youn is a plastic surgeon and can be reached at his self-titled site, Anthony Youn, MD. He is the author of Playing God: The Evolution of a Modern Surgeon.
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