True confessions of a surgeon: What’s the best question you can ask her?

Picture this: You’re in the operating room, performing a challenging procedure. (If you’re not a doctor, roll with me here and play along. You’ll get it soon.)

You’re feeling pretty good about how the surgery is going.

You’re grateful that your usual team is with you, because that always makes you feel more confident.

Then something happens …

Right at the most critical part of the procedure, crisis ensues and the instrument you’re using breaks! WTH?! You’ve never had this problem before. For a moment (that seems much more like an eternity), you freeze.

Your mind goes through all possible options. They whirl by like a ticker tape in your head. As each option zooms by, you quickly decide the chances of success: no freakin’ way; okay, maybe; it’s possible.

Yes, this happened to me. As much as I hate to admit it, the feeling of not having it all 100 percent together sends me reeling a bit. I’m a surgeon after all, and a life coach.  People like us cannot lose it — it’s just not allowed!

What do you do at that moment, when the one thing that should never happen actually happens?

I know that being still and thinking clearly is my best bet for my patient and for a good outcome. I take a deep breath on purpose, remembering that that helps.

The room is quiet, except for the continuous beeps of the anesthesia machine, the blood pressure and pulse monitoring, the radio playing in the background. All these things move forward, oblivious to the drama on the surgical field.

Meanwhile, my scrub tech, Brian, whose job it is to hand me instruments, assist in the surgery, and make things go smoother, has also been frozen. He’s worked with me for seven years now. He can read me like a book.

Breaking the silence, Brian finally speaks. His words are measured. He talks slowly and deliberately, so as not to topple this apple cart any more than it already is.

“How can I best help you now?” is what Brian says.

I finally look up from the field, and our eyes lock over our surgical masks. He knows we are at a crossroads. Things can go either way.

I softly nod and try for a half-smile. In truth, I want to scream or cry, as I am still wondering how to fix this unfixable problem.

“That,” I say to Brian, “is the perfect question to ask right now. How did you know?”

And that gentle question gives me the power to move forward. It reminds me that I am not alone in the room. That I have a whole team at my side, ready to shoulder with me and make this all better.

My pulse slows a bit, giving me space to process things. I have a plan. It seems likely it will work.

I slowly and intentionally ask for the additional equipment that I need, remaining calm, as I know my team will feed off of my energy. I know that the ripple effect can trickle downward and impact everyone in the room. I resist the strong urge to holler at someone. I know the broken instrument is no one’s fault, and that the instrument can’t hear me.

Brian and I, and the rest of the team in the room, proceed without panic as we reinvent the surgical wheel. I can see now that this new plan is (Thank God!) working, and I am becoming more relaxed. I remember to keep breathing.

Several minutes later, we get past the danger zone. We’ve conquered that damn broken instrument and the surgery (and the patient) are headed for a successful outcome.

At the end of the case, as I put a special dressing on my patient to make sure he will heal properly, I put my gloved hand on top of Brian’s gloved hand. There’s a pause.

“Thank you, Brian,” I say. “You did the exact right thing.” And then, looking around the room at the rest of my team, who followed our lead and didn’t go to the dark side when things went wrong, “And thank you, everybody. Great effort on all counts.”

As I left the operating room to find the family and let them know all was well, I thought about that question: “How can I best help you now?” And I realized that it’s a question that can be used any time we see a fellow human floundering. They can be hurting from a crisis or just wondering what to next.

It’s the best question. Ever.

Even if you’re not a doctor finding yourself in this scenario, this is for you too. Because there’s always something, whether it’s a life or death crisis, or a friend in need.

So, I’m asking you: How can I best help you now?

Starla Fitch is an ophthalmologist, speaker, and personal coach. She blogs at Love Medicine Again and is the author of Remedy for Burnout: 7 Prescriptions Doctors Use to Find Meaning in Medicine. She can also be reached on Twitter @StarlaFitchMD.

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