As an aspiring surgeon, I at times contemplate whether being creative has any effect on my future career. On one hand, if you see surgery as an “art,” then possibly a creative personality is beneficial. On the other hand, surgery often seems objective and clear-cut, qualities often deemed uncreative. Perhaps even my goals of surgery and my interests in artistic creation are independent, noncommunicating personality features that are unrelated and unimportant to each other. Although it may seem that being artistic is unusual for a surgeon at first, the reality is that creativity and surgery are undeniably connected. The result is one affecting the other and vice versa, like the frames of a ladder linked by its steps. Together, they allow a surgeon to continually grow in their craft and attain even greater heights.
Unsurprisingly, a surgeon is extremely attentive to precision and detail. Whether during a lipoma resection or a heart transplant, surgery has risks that range from injury to surrounding structures to anesthetic complications and more. Every aspect of the operation must be fine-tuned and closely monitored. In a similar fashion, yet without life-altering risks at stake, art often draws upon and forces such intent from the artist. Writing a poem requires a keen attention to word usage and understanding that each sound, syllable, and meaning compiles into the composite creation. A painting is a result of individual markings conglomerating into a complete image. Regardless of the art, you will find an artist who has spent the grueling hours of attentive exactness to bring it into life. The dedication of perfection is what produces a result that is clear and effective.
Such focus and precision also introduces another quality that is key to the surgeon and artist alike, which is perseverance. Once a surgery starts, there is no turning back without seeing it through. Just because a surgeon may become frustrated or tired does not allow them to simply be done. Instead, choices must be made, and the operation must be completed. Much like the surgeon, an artist also pulls upon this patient perseverance even through the worst of performances. Regardless of exhaustion or even mistakes, the artist must continue. A scratchy or pitchy note is no excuse for a violinist to pack up and leave. Or a missed queue in theater does not mean the curtain must be drawn. The show must go on despite personal discomforts and preferences.
Core to this steadfast dedication of both the artist and the surgeon is practice. No amount of innate skill compensates for a lack of rehearsal of a technique. Even the most brilliant minds disservice themselves if the time and effort is not made to practice their chosen craft. For the artist, practicing comes in the form of long hours of not only repeating certain skills but also reflecting on areas of improvement. However for the surgeon, the practice of surgical skills is similar but requires extensive supervision given the risk that errors can have. Established surgeons guide and teach their trainees as they gradually grow and reinforce their repertoire of surgical knowledge. A skillful surgeon is the product of practice defined by years of attentive effort while identifying mistakes to prevent in the future.
Perhaps being artistic might help the future surgeon in being patient, perseverant, and dedicated to precision. However, the creativity involved in arts has an even greater impact on their fluid thinking and problem-solving skills. Central to creativity is the ability to take what is known and synthesize something original. Consider an art such as abstract painting. The subject may be just a living room, but through the artist’s work, they create something extraordinary and unseen before. However, in medicine, creativity takes on a different appearance. Research is a great example of creativity as it continually devises new ways to build upon the known to elucidate the unknown. Even the surgeon requires creativity in the operating room. Regardless of extensive training, there is always something unexpected, whether that be anatomical variants or unforeseen complications. In those unpredicted moments, a surgeon must utilize their adaptive knowledge and find a solution quickly. Such a skill departs from the conventional knowledge of a textbook and enters the realms of creativity.
Yet equally important, being creative in surgery could likely make a more humanistic surgeon. Although procedures are often rather objective and direct, a surgeon must also become a master communicator while connecting with vulnerable, anxious patients. It is frightening for any patient to enter the operating room, but having a personable surgeon builds trust in the patient-provider relationship. Using art to help a surgeon become more humanistic is not surprising though. Art exists because a person considered what is a human experience and how to best portray that. Then the result was a connection with other people experiencing that artist’s perspective. Having a surgeon that already exercised these empathic and sociable skills is an undeniable strength.
Finally, creativity has an importance to the future surgeon that lies outside just the intertwining of art and surgery. The arts give people an “out” from the daily grind and distract from the stressors in life. Surgical residencies and careers have the infamous reputation of being time-consuming and extremely rigorous. Both the personal creation and the enjoyment of creative endeavors have a role in reducing burnout and frustration. Although arts and creativity are no substitutes for mitigating harsh work environments, for many, they could help ease personal stress while practicing surgery. Even the surgeon, as dedicated and hard-working as they are, deserves to enjoy life.
To the future surgeon, consider how creativity could improve yourself and your career. Find ways to be creative in medical school and reflect on how creativity enhances your future contributions to surgery. Both art and surgery benefit each other because ultimately, the aim is simple and the same – creating a human connection through the perfection of a craft.
Thomas L. Amburn is a medical student.
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