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.