It was Thanksgiving morning. My wife was standing in the living room when she received a text message from her father. Her face went pale, and her expression turned to one of anger and disbelief. She cursed. She cried. Her mother had complained of chest pain and stroke-like symptoms and was being rushed to the hospital by ambulance.
Many hours went by with few answers and endless speculation. We had moved to Washington State for my job as an OB/GYN and her parents had moved to Washington, DC for their jobs with homeland security. We were across the country from each other. It felt like we were on different planets as we waited for brief updates in group texts — as we waited for those faithful notification rings from our phones indicating a new message. It felt like we were in the wrong Washington.
Finally, we received word that she was being transported to another hospital where a cardiac surgeon was available because her imaging indicated an aortic dissection.
Today, I spoke on the phone with the cardiac surgeon who will be performing my mother in laws aortic dissection repair on Monday. Leading up to this, I couldn’t help but wonder: How good is this surgeon? How often does he do this surgery? Is he one of the best for this procedure?
I know when a patient comes to me they often think the same things. Sometimes they ask and sometimes they don’t. When they ask, they often preface it with an apology as if I would be offended by someone verifying me when they are about to risk their life on my OR table. I’m always happy to discuss my training, my volume, my outcomes. I am happy to let them know how many times this procedure is done at our hospital, and why I feel our team of doctors, nurses, anesthesia providers, etc. provides excellent care.
Those who work with me know how OCD I am. I believe if we are going to do something we must do it well or we have an obligation to send the patient elsewhere. We train. We practice. We perfect. We can never guarantee an outcome and sometimes things don’t go as planned, but we can walk out of the OR that day knowing that the patient was given the best chance for a positive outcome.
Sometimes the drills get tedious. Sometimes it’s hard to make the time to read that new study in the journal when you’ve had a full day and can’t remember the last time you spent time with your family. However, we always remember that the person we are operating on is someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter. So we push through.
The cardiac surgeon told me he was the medical director of cardiac surgery. He told me who he trained with and where. He told me of the high volume of cases he and his center perform. He then clarified that he did not want to seem arrogant or like an advertisement but rather thought it was important for me to know him, to trust him. It reminded me of a quote by Dr Mehmet Oz:
As a surgeon you have to have a controlled arrogance. If it’s uncontrolled, you kill people, but you have to be pretty arrogant to saw through a person’s chest, take out their heart and believe you can fix it. Then, when you succeed, and the patient survives, you pray, because it’s only by the grace of God that you get there.
I was comforted by what he told me. I’m still worried, but I know my mother in law is in good hands. On Monday, I will have her in my thoughts and prayers. On Monday, I will also continue to work as the medical director of our obstetrics unit to make sure we can provide the same comfort and care to the next patient’s family who comes through the door.
Nariman Heshmati is an obstetrician-gynecologist.
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