Sunday, December 3, 2017

Reflections on 7,000 Operations and 25 Years as a Surgeon

The following essay appeared in The Morning Call Website Opinion Page on Sunday, November 19, 2017

It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed. After 4 years at Muhlenberg College, 4 more years of medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, and 8 years of residency at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, I’ve now hit the milestone of 25 years in surgical practice and 7,000 operations at Lehigh Valley Health Network. It feels like yesterday that I was the new guy in town. And now today, the new recruits look to me for advice –the kind of sage advice that only experience and perseverance can provide.

My reflections are naturally bittersweet. Like most, I tend to dwell more on my mistakes and the things I wished I could have done differently. I think about the missed opportunities and the times that I was too cautious or too bold. The road has been long and demanding, full of speed bumps and challenges. There were many times that I wondered if I would make it through. And though I’ve persevered, my heart still knows little rest. In the quiet of night, I often think about the patients I could not save. Their memories remain with me, along with the emptiness of knowing that my best just wasn’t good enough.

One such patient is Trina Green from Ashland, Schuylkill County; her picture remains on my desk. I met Trina shortly after her 40th birthday. Just one year prior, Trina was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had undergone what was believed to be curative surgery, but sadly, the cancer returned, having spread to her lungs. Unfortunately, there was little I could do surgically. Trina was an avid Phillies fan, like me. Prior to her passing, Trina enjoyed one last Phillies game, sitting in my seats at Citizens Bank Park. The photograph on my desk was taken at that game, showing Trina so happy, as if she had not a care in the world. Her effervescent blue eyes sparkled with joy, as she cheered on her Phillies for the last time. Her memory and those beautiful eyes still haunt me.

Trina Green, holding the Phillies #1 sign, enjoying one last Phillies game with her sister-in-law and best friend, Linda Duell.
Trina passed away on March 13, 2006, at the age of 42.

Yet, there is also great satisfaction and accomplishment upon reflection. Over the years, I’ve touched many lives, more than I take the time to sometimes realize. One is Mischel Satunas of Bethlehem. At 49-years old, Mischel underwent a life-saving third-time, triple-valve open heart surgery, a procedure rarely performed. Prior to meeting me, she was turned down multiple times for surgery, saying that she was too high risk and that her symptoms were all in her head. She recently celebrated her 6-year anniversary from that successful surgery and has become a spokesperson and champion for women with heart disease in our community.

Dr. Raymond L. Singer hugs Mischel Satunas of Bethlehem at the Lehigh Valley Heart and Stroke Walk at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem Township, in 2015, four years after he performed a third-time, triple-valve open heart surgery on her.

Mischel would say that a smile, a touch of the hand, a kind, but confident word to let someone know that they’re going be fine makes all the difference. Patients cherish those personal moments the most, knowing that their doctor cares for them with respect and empathy. The lesson here is simple. Treat every patient as if they were your own family.

I’ve often said that I was lucky because I came from a family of patients, not doctors. My father had three cancers before he passed away. My amazing 94-year old mother is twice a cancer survivor and had heart surgery herself many years ago, and yet she continues to fight on. I’ve sat in many doctors’ waiting rooms.

I’ve witnessed the physical impact of cancer and chemotherapy. I’ve felt the pain that comes from surgery and I’ve endured the sadness of saying goodbye to someone I love.

Treating patients as if they were your own family is the key to enjoying a long career in medicine. In many ways, it’s all that really matters. Doctors can go to the best schools and learn every new procedure, but they will never truly succeed unless they learn to treat the patient, not just the disease.

This advice of “treating the patient, not the disease” is hardly new, nor mine, but goes back thousands of years ago to the teachings of Hippocrates and Maimonides. It’s as old as the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.”

Yes, I’ve been blessed to have enjoyed a rewarding career at a magnificent hospital, living in a wonderful community, raising two beautiful daughters with my wife. I’ve worked with the same staff, the same nurses, and the same dedicated colleagues for all 25 years. I’ve said many times that the reason I’ve never left is because I know in my heart, whatever success I enjoy, it’s because of the team that surrounds me.

I hope to keep the flame burning for years to come. When you love what you do, it’s not work, so retirement is not on my to-do list for now. Besides, I rather be in the operating room with these young, talented professionals, than chasing golf balls in the woods.

But no matter what the future holds for me, today I am filled with gratitude for my patients and their families, my colleagues and staff, and most of all, my family, for always being there for me. To all, I say with deep appreciation and love, thank you.

Link to The Morning Call Website Opinion Page Publication