Lessons from a surgeon who became a patient

It’s not uncommon for surgeons to undergo surgery themselves at some point in their careers. In fact, many surgeons find that having personal experience with the surgical process helps them to better understand their patients’ experiences and emotions.

Dr. James Suliburk, a surgeon in the Division of Surgical Oncology at Baylor College of Medicine, recently found himself on the other side of the operating table as a patient. The surgery was necessary to address a persistent health issue that had been causing him discomfort for some time. As a surgeon, Suliburk was no stranger to the surgical process, but he still found the experience to be intimidating.

“It’s one thing to know what to expect as a surgeon, but it’s another thing entirely to actually go through it as a patient,” he said.

Despite his initial anxiety, Suliburk found his training as a surgeon proved to be invaluable during his own surgery. He was able to remain calm and focused throughout the procedure and even provided input and guidance to his surgical team when needed.

Some tips he wants to share with other patients undergoing surgery:

  • Find a highly experienced surgeon for the procedure
  • Eat a healthy diet for the two weeks before surgery
  • Abstain from all alcohol
  • Hydrate well the day before surgery using electrolyte hydration solutions
  • Understand what downtime would be for the day of surgery as well as in the week following surgery
  • Plan for pain management (taking Tylenol ahead of surgery in the evening and early a.m., having prescription meds on hand)
  • Plan for mobility (getting around the house, stairs, in and out of the car)
  • Create a detailed plan for parking and transportation on the day of surgery and know how to navigate inside the hospital to check in prior to surgery
  • Keep contact numbers on hand to contact the clinical care team for any postoperative issues following surgery

Looking back on the experience, Suliburk says that undergoing surgery has given him a new level of empathy and understanding for his patients. “I have a greater appreciation for what my patients go through, both physically and emotionally, when they come to me for surgery,” he said. “I think it’s important for surgeons to remember that we are not just treating a condition or a problem – we are treating a whole person and that person may be feeling scared and vulnerable. It’s our job to provide the best possible care and support.”

His experience serves as a reminder that even the most experienced and skilled surgeons are still human, and that everyone can benefit from a little empathy and understanding while empowering the patient to be a dignified and engaged member of the care team.

By Tiffany Harson, communications associate in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine.

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