AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 4, 2019

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A Patient, Not an Image

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My preconceived and naive opinion as a child was that neurosurgeons are excellent technicians that spend countless hours rearranging human tissue, much as would a mechanic working on a car. These distorted notions are common in today’s society and are further dramatized through popular media sources, such as Dr. Strange and Grey’s Anatomy. Media portrayals such as these were potentially responsible for my own (and likely most of the world’s) preconceptions, as this was originally the only exposure to this specialized field.

Being a part of my grandmother’s neurosurgical care is what first guided my young self to explore the mindset of neurosurgeons. Nearly ten years ago, she had an ischemic stroke, which left her debilitated without much vocal communication and left side paralysis. I did not know it then, but caring for her left a lasting impact on my perspective on medicine. It shaped my outlook of giving patients compassionate care in their time of need.

Being interested in neurosurgery, a high stakes surgical specialty, I spent the first year of medical school pursuing discussions with physicians about thought-provoking situations I would undoubtedly experience in my career. We examined how to deal with death, how to approach patients of various backgrounds and more. Through these discussions, I began to realize that patients value surgeons who are well-rounded and able to connect with them beyond their technical and medical expertise. The discussions led me to further explore the mindset of a neurosurgeon through reading books, such as “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi and “Gifted Hands” by Ben Carson. These personal accounts of neurosurgery directly challenged the original, dramatized perception I had of neurosurgeons. I understood that there was more emotional connection within the field than I originally thought.

With this in mind, I spent the past summer seeing the field of neurosurgery through my own experiences at the Cleveland Clinic shadowing Iain Kalfa, MD, FAANS. Through interactions with patients, I sought to observe the mindset of a neurosurgeon while continuing to challenge the presumptions I had. Dr. Kalfas never used a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, each patient received individualized attention. He might involve their family members, use explanations that personally connected with the patient or simply offer hopeful words. I witnessed this firsthand with Dr. Kalfas. His humility and compassionate character are contagious and inspiring.

No matter what the background of the patient, he successfully connected with each one on a personal level. For example, he discovered that one of his patients had been a patient of his father’s, decades ago while both served in the military. I recognized the intrinsically human nature of neurosurgeons and it was evident this mattered to patients while they faced difficult situations.

As I move through medical school, I am inspired to be more holistic in my care of patients. Working along a team of providers with a humanistic mindset that places the patient above all else is necessary to treat the whole patient and the entirety of his or her illness. Neurosurgeons are much more than simple mechanics. They are sympathetic healers, encouraging clinicians and most importantly, humans. This is what my grandmother was given in her time of need, and it is what I hope to give to those I treat as well.

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