To Those Whom Much is Given

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“To those whom much is given, much is expected.”
John F. Kennedy

I was too young to know JFK, but his legend lives on in the many good works and speeches he left behind. One particular bell, which tolls in my mind, is “To those whom much is given, much is expected.”

Three young idealistic high school seniors recently visited me in my office. They wanted to interview me for a school project they were doing on careers. In this class project, they were tasked to identify important community leaders, interview them and find out what makes them tick, and report back to the class on what they had learned. Although it was supposed to be a life lesson for the kids, it turned out to be a valuable reminder to me.

Dr. Lee and student visitors

Being identified as an “important community leader” was a distinction I had not really thought of before. I am a simple man with a simple purpose, to heal the sick and to save lives. Having been a heart surgeon for over 20 years I guess I take this in a matter of fact sort of way, but if you think about it, devoting one’s life to heal the sick and to saving lives really is an incredible calling.

During my interview by the teens, I was asked, “So what made you want to become a heart surgeon?”

I related to them that when I was younger, I was in a major automobile accident. I was an undergraduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and had just finished finals. A typical premed student, I was overloaded with courses, research projects, and social activities, although not necessarily in that order. I like most college students had become expert at a science more commonly known as procrastination. Gifted with a photographic memory, I am pretty good at learning a lot of material in a short amount of time. I successfully completed a series of tough exams after a series of all-nighters. Subscribing to the life strategy, “work hard, play hard,” after completing my last exam, I jumped into my Nissan 200 SX, cranked up the tunes, and headed off on a road trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey with unfortunately little sleep.

I remember getting as far as somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike before I fell asleep at the wheel and totaled my car. I also totaled my body. I broke both my legs and my left arm and had to be put into traction for three months. My parents transferred me to New York Hospital’s Hospital for Special Surgery where I underwent three painful orthopedic operations and months of grueling rehabilitation and physical therapy. Although I still can’t run as fast or jump as high as I used to, I was blessed with the resilience of youth, and fully recovered.

They say certain life events can change a person’s outlook on life, and it’s really true. Not wearing a seat belt, I am lucky to even be here today. But being in traction for three long months (traction is when doctors put a metal pin in your broken leg and via pulleys attach it to a heavy weight at the end of your hospital bed to keep your fractured bones straight and allow your body to heal) and facing down three major surgeries, gave me insight into the very real thoughts and fears every patient must have.

Being in traction is an awfully humbling experience. You are attached to pins and wires and weights, so you can’t move at all. My only good limb was my right arm, which essentially allowed me to feed myself off trays delivered to me, change the TV channel, and hit the call button for help. My deep appreciation as a physician for the dedication and hard work nurses do for our patients emanate from my life changing first hand experience. Nurses are the true unsung heroes and heroines of our medical system and usually do not get the credit and respect they deserve.

I remember the night before undergoing each of my three surgeries, silently praying to GOD, that I would be ok and survive. I remember making a deal with him, that if he let me live and recover, I promised I would do something worthwhile with my life. I do not think I am alone in these kinds of “night before surgery dealings.” I believe most people facing major surgery, often quietly pray to whatever higher power they believe in, that they will pull through. Although I have never had heart surgery, having been through three major surgeries myself, I believe has helped better inform me on the thoughts and fears of my own patients. It has definitely made me a better doctor. It really does help to know first hand what my patients must be thinking about and fearing heading into surgery. My experience as a patient has taught me to stop and hold my patients’ hands in their times of fear and need. I make sure their pain is well attended to. I comfort them and their families as best I can. I think they appreciate it. Some call it having a good bedside manner. I know it’s just from knowing what it’s like to be on the other side of the shiny scalpel. Having been a patient myself taught me well the fear and uncertainty my patient’s must feel and gifted me with the traits of humility, compassion, and gratitude that guide me as a surgeon.

Well I pulled through all my three surgeries just as most of my patients pull through theirs! Even though I had to hobble with a cane on my medical school interviews, I made it into medical school and eventually became a heart surgeon. I became a heart surgeon because it is the most significant way I could fulfill my promise to make a real difference in other people’s lives. I was given the gift of life and the ability to heal the sick and to save lives. Just as JFK left behind his great works and speeches, I will leave behind the thousands of patients and their families I will have helped over my career. “To whom much was given, much is expected.”

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