I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.
During the first two or three years in practice, your skills seem to improve almost daily. It’s not about hand-eye coördination—you have that down halfway through your residency. As one of my professors once explained, doing surgery is no more physically difficult than writing in cursive. Surgical mastery is about familiarity and judgment. You learn the problems that can occur during a particular procedure or with a particular condition, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems.
Say you’ve got a patient who needs surgery for appendicitis. These days, surgeons will typically do a laparoscopic appendectomy. You slide a small camera—a laparoscope—into the abdomen through a quarter-inch incision near the belly button, insert a long grasper through an incision beneath the waistline, and push a device for stapling and cutting through an incision in the left lower abdomen. Use the grasper to pick up the finger-size appendix, fire the stapler across its base and across the vessels feeding it, drop the severed organ into a plastic bag, and pull it out. Close up, and you’re done. That’s how you like it to go, anyway. But often it doesn’t.
Even before you start, you need to make some judgments. Unusual anatomy, severe obesity, or internal scars from previous abdominal surgery could make it difficult to get the camera in safely; you don’t want to poke it into a loop of intestine. You have to decide which camera-insertion method to use—there’s a range of options—or whether to abandon the high-tech approach and do the operation the traditional way, with a wide-open incision that lets you see everything directly. If you do get your camera and instruments inside, you may have trouble grasping the appendix. Infection turns it into a fat, bloody, inflamed worm that sticks to everything around it—bowel, blood vessels, an ovary, the pelvic sidewall—and to free it you have to choose from a variety of tools and techniques. You can use a long cotton-tipped instrument to try to push the surrounding attachments away. You can use electrocautery, a hook, a pair of scissors, a sharp-tip dissector, a blunt-tip dissector, a right-angle dissector, or a suction device. You can adjust the operating table so that the patient’s head is down and his feet are up, allowing gravity to pull the viscera in the right direction. Or you can just grab whatever part of the appendix is visible and pull really hard.