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Is it Possible to Live a Full Life as a Surgeon‏?

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Skeptical Scalpel

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweets as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 1400 page views per day, and he has over 9500 followers on Twitter.

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Skeptical Scalpel (click to view)

Skeptical Scalpel

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweets as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 1400 page views per day, and he has over 9500 followers on Twitter.

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A fourth-year medical student asked me that question. I never even considered what impact my choice as a surgeon would have on my personal life.
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Not too long ago, a fourth-year medical student asked me that question. Here’s what I told him.

I became a surgeon because it appealed to me more than any other specialty. Like most others of my era, I was young and had gone the traditional route—4 years of college followed immediately by med school. I had experienced few adventures [in fact, none] and had not yet met my wife-to-be.

I never even considered what impact my choice would have on my personal life. The subject simply did not come up. I worked hard in medical school but had a great time. I think I had more fun in med school than I did in college.

My residency prepared me well for the rigors of a surgical career. I spent the first 4 years of my training taking call about half every other night and half every third night. As a chief resident, I was in call every night. Somehow I found the time to have a relationship and got married at the end of my third year.

My wife of 40 years is a saint. I have wonderful children and now grandchildren too.

I was fortunate in my career to have had the opportunity to supervise the training of a number of surgeons who are helping people every day.

Although I’ll never climb Everest, go an African safari, ski the Swiss Alps or do many other things that might be important to others, I’ve had an interesting and fulfilling life. Wilderness? Not so much. But love and relationships? I got ’em.

But it is different for the millennial generation. What I considered interesting and fulfilling might not be to you.

Surgery continues to evolve. I think it may be possible in the near future to have a career as a general surgeon and also have a manageable lifestyle. By the time you finish training, everyone will be in group or hospital-based practices. Or you could be an acute care surgeon with fixed hours.

You will have to decide what compromises to make such as deciding if leaving work at 5 pm is more important than staying late to operate on your patient who has a complication you created.

No one talks about this part—you will have to find partners you can trust with the lives of your patients. The roadside is littered with the corpses of group practices that didn’t last because of productivity issues, attitudinal, personality, or philosophical differences among the surgeons.

For many surgeons, fulfillment is measured by the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference in someone’s life.

Can you be a surgeon and have a rich and fulfilling life? You can, but it depends on how you define rich and fulfilling.

Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweets as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 1400 page views per day, and he has over 9500 followers on Twitter.

36 Comments

  1. i really wanted to be a doctor but i also want a life.. traveling is one of my goals, too. i’m having doubts now…

    Reply
    • You can still travel and afford to do it in style. You just can’t do it as often as you might like.

      Reply
      • omg. that’s great to hear! i’ve read some articles saying you can’t completely travel and such. but you can, atleast once or twice a year, right?

        Reply
        • Yes.

          Reply
    • Doctors can travel a lot also. Some kinder docters even travel to third-world countries for free to treat the people who can’t pay for it themselves. It’s a kind task. Hehe I wanted to be a doctor but I fell into my art habits.

      Reply
  2. Hey there, I’m 23 years old with only one year of community college completed. Finally I feel like there is something that interests me enough to go BACK to school but is it too late me for to become a surgeon? What should my first steps be towards achieving my goals be? Any information you can give me would be awesome!

    Reply
    • Definitely not too late. Many have succeeded in med school after starting at age 30-35. Go for it. Study hard. Ace the MCAT. Good luck.

      Reply
  3. Good am/pm sir, I’m still a high school student probably, soon to be a grade 11 student in Philippines. I chose stem as my track, and i’ve already taken an entrance exam in a medical school and passed.

    I dont have any connections in my family even so, i really wanted to become a doctor. I have decided to have med tech as my pre-med (bcoz most of my teachers preferred it).

    Being a general surgeon also inspires me a lot but at the same time, the thoughts of not going to make it or “impossible” always hits me, i also considered our country not that productive, especially to our city because of the lack of med school ( there is only one medical school that has “medicine” (dunno about the term yet)) even though it is like that, i just wanted to ask if being a general surgeon is hard, or does it require a student who is likely intelligent(lol i know this question is stupid), how many years or estimated years to study to become a general surgeon, what do you do after graduating as a general surgeon? Did you get a job directly? Or did you still have a following training? How many years did you finish training? While in training, do you have somewhat an income? After training what do you do? What are your advice?

    *ps, i know some of my questions are really stupid and i apologize for that.
    *if you ask why should not i talk to a general surgeon in our country, it’s because i don’t have any connections, not just in my family/ etc. Lol. Even though i’ll go out, and go to an hospital, it’s really hard.

    Reply
    • Yes, being a general surgeon is hard, and you have to be intelligent in order to make it through medical school and residency training. In the US, most surgeons spent four years in college, four years in medical school, and a minimum of five years in general surgery residency training. These days, most graduates of general surgery training take at least one year of fellowship in a subspecialty of general surgery. However, this is not mandatory, and many begin to practice and do well directly after residency training. Yes, there is “somewhat of an income” during residency training. I’m not sure what advice you are looking for. It might be difficult for you as a citizen of the Philippines to go to medical school in the US and/or obtain a residency in surgery here. Since it is a long way off for you, things may change. Good luck.

      Reply
  4. I’m looking to pursue a career in medicine. Eventually, I hope to join Doctors Without Borders or a similar organization. Any advice you have in regards to my college choice, what I major/minor in, and what sort of internships and/or study abroad programs I participate it before med school? Additionally, I’m wondering if I’ll be able to pursue other interests along with a medical degree? Since I was little, I’ve always been interested in acting or music or photography… but clearly these don’t align well with the training that goes towards being a doctor. Will I have time to partake in other interests? Thanks!

    Reply
    • This is just my opinion, but I think many people believe what I’m about to say. Regarding a college choice, you should attend a college with a name that someone more than 50 miles away from it would recognize. You can major in anything you want as long as you take the required science courses. Medical schools today are looking for well-rounded individuals who are not science nerds. Studying abroad is not necessary, but you need to demonstrate an interest in medicine by doing some community service or working in some medical capacity as a college student. Doing some research is also recommended.
      ***
      Busy people can always make time for other interests. Music, acting, or photography would be good choices. Your goal is a noble one. I hope you achieve it. Good luck.

      Reply
  5. Do you recommend to pursue a private practice or hospital employment for a neurosurgeon?

    Reply
    • I’m not a neurosurgeon. The answer to your question depends on whether you want to make a ton of money or not. If the answer is yes, choose private practice. If you would prefer a less hectic lifestyle and don’t mind less money, choose a salaried position. I am not sure how many of the latter positions there are. I know that some hospitals are so desperate for neurosurgeons that they offer a guaranteed income up front. That’s sort of a combination of private practice and salary. PS: Neurosurgery residencies are very competitive and very long. You need to do exceptionally well in school. Good luck.

      Reply
  6. Hi im a 3rd year medical student and i never rlly wanted to be a surgreon until i saw greys anatomy for 2 years now all i want to be is a surgeon and i dont care about the drama on the show the medical stuff is what intrests me, im just wondering how hard is it to be a surgeon? I’ve always been the top of my class in medical school im doing well and working hard and having a super busy schedule doesnt scare me but im wondering is it possible for me to have a normal life? Have time for my husbund kids excersice friends? And still be a great surgeon

    Reply
    • Sorry for the delay in responding. Yes, it is possible for you to have a normal life. I have two suggestions for you. One, have a long conversation with a female surgeon at your medical school and find out how she did it. Two, read some of my other posts on the subject of becoming a surgeon. Nine of them can be found at this link: http://skepticalscalpel.blogspot.com/2016/01/should-i-become-general-surgeon.html
      ***
      Good luck.

      Reply
  7. I haven’t done that great so far in school/college, but I’m ready to buckle down and work hard for this. Is it possible to still become a surgeon even though my past grades aren’t so great?

    Reply
    • I’m going to need a little more info. How not so great are your grades? Have you taken any science courses and how did you do? Are you attending a school that anyone may have heard of? Do you already have significant tuition debt?
      ***
      You can email me if you would rather. SkepticalScalpel@hotmail.com

      Reply
  8. I’ve looked Into becoming a surgeon for four years now, but all I have seen is negative commentary. I’m well aware that being a surgeon requires a lot of dedication but is it really that bad? I plan to study nursing but yet I know I will regret never taking the chance to become a surgeon like I’ve been wanting too. I guess the only thing that I fear is not spending time with my family. On top of that, I come from a low income family so how will I end paying my debt?

    Reply
    • It’s not nearly as bad as some people say. And don’t forget that people who complain are much more likely to speak up than those who are satisfied. Regarding the debt, I can’t help much. Go to state schools. Live modestly and save money to pay off your loans after you finish training.

      Reply
      • Is it worth financially becoming a surgeon? I want to know that after those 12 – 16 hard years Im earning a lot of money.

        Reply
        • I would say it’s worth it, but if you just want to make money, become a hedge fund manager or an investment banker. It takes a lot less time to be trained.

          Reply
  9. When you say, “Although I’ll never climb Everest, go an African safari, ski the Swiss Alps or do many other things that might be important to others, I’ve had an interesting and fulfilling life. Wilderness? Not so much. But love and relationships? I got ’em.” Does this mean general surgeons rarely, if not ever, find the time to travel or enjoy some personal time off every now and then?

    I’m glad to hear that love and relationships are possible to have even within a demanding profession. Any insight you can provide on how much time is possible to have with loved ones during med school, residency, and beyond? (Little to none/fair amount/more than enough?) Although I’m sure it helps if loved ones are very understanding and supportive when personal time may not always be available.

    Also, I am a non-traditional student, just about to start my undergraduate studies. Any advice to those who feel it may be too late to pursue a career as a general surgeon?

    Reply
    • I’ve traveled a lot, even when I was a chief of surgery and in practice. We even took our 6 kids to Europe twice. I found more than adequate time for family. It helps to have an understanding and self-sufficient spouse.
      ***
      I’ve complied a list of several posts I wrote about becoming a surgeon on my personal blog. Here’s the link: http://skepticalscalpel.blogspot.com/2016/01/should-i-become-general-surgeon.html

      Reply
      • Thank you!

        Reply
  10. Hi… Im a 1st yr surgery resident who happens to b d only female n d 1st ever female in d dpt since d college started other dan d interns who come n go…. I took up surgery cause i never felt d kind of lov n passion to any other branch like i do for surgery… But some how now a days i feel its a mistake…every day i get tormented by my seniors just cause im a woman n i even get comments like its still not late to change streams… N my family also keeps tellin me its a bad choice..Do u really think its true… I mean i lov surgery n one day i wana even take up plastics… Its just dat sometimes i feel may b dey all r rite… What do u think? Can women not b gud surgeons?

    Reply
    • Women can be good surgeons or even great surgeons. You need to join Twitter and follow some of the many women surgeons who are very happy and successful. You can start by following the Association of Women Surgeons (@WomenSurgeons). There are blogs to read and you can see who the association is following and follow some of those women.
      ***
      Good luck.

      Reply
  11. Hi, Can you facilitate your email or something to contact you??? Is important

    Reply
    • SkepticalScalpel(@ sign)hotmail(dot)com

      Reply
  12. When you are little, have you ever dreamed to become a surgeon or the chance to become a surgeon never crossed your mind?

    Reply
    • Good question. I never thought of it until late in high school when I decided I wanted to become a doctor. At first I thought I would be a psychiatrist. That notion disappeared when I did my first anatomy lab in med school.

      Reply
  13. Being a cardiac surgeon can I enjoy my life??????
    Or will I be regretting for my choice as I am fun loving person…

    Reply
    • I think you will be fine. Don’t let medicine get you down.

      Reply
  14. Have you ever regret that you chose medicine because of stress? What kind of stresses did you experience most often as a surgeon. What kind of volunteers did you do to get accepted into a med school?

    Reply
  15. As a surgeon, were you able to
    have a summer and/or any breaks?

    Reply
  16. what do you do hour by hour/

    Reply
    • Right now, I am retired. I assume your question is about what I did hour by hour as a surgeon. That is a difficult question to answer simply, because every day was different for me.

      Because I was a surgical chairman and residency program director for most of my career, my days were not typical for a surgeon. The average surgeon sees patients in an office or clinic setting on some days and operates on other days. If there are patients in the hospital, most surgeons will see those patients every day and write progress notes. There are also emergency consultations and operations to be dealt with. Most surgeons take night call once or possibly twice a week. It is different for surgeons in teaching hospitals with residents versus those in nonteaching hospitals who may be working only with physician assistants or nurse practitioners.

      If you want to know more about what a surgeon does on a daily basis, you might consider “shadowing” a surgeon for a couple of days.

      Reply

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