The Important Lesson My Surgeon Taught Me Is Not What You Think

There is a better way to confront the problems we face in life and at work, and my almost-surgeon helped me realize what this simple yet vital way is.

Kendra Estey · 11 Aug 2020
Important lessons from a surgeon

I was 17. And I was in and out of the hospital five times in five months.

…It wasn’t a great year for me.

But, I did learn some valuable lessons from the experience. In particular, when we were at our wits’ end, the last straw, when we just couldn’t get the hole in my intestines to heal on its own, and we’d finally turned to surgery as our only option left.

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A Simple Question

We met with a highly recommended surgeon who specialized in gastrointestinal procedures. At our first meeting, he sat down with me and my parents to go over the plan. During this time, he confronted me — not my parents — with the question “What is Crohn’s disease?” And I rattled off my rote answer: “An autoimmune disease of the intestines.”

Well, that wasn’t enough for him. He asked me what else I knew. He took out a picture of the abdomen’s anatomy and asked me to show him where in the digestive system Crohn’s disease attacks. What does Crohn’s disease do?

I knew where I personally was having issues, and I knew it had something to do with inflammation. But that was all I could tell him. And it was frustrating for me, the straight A student, used to having all the answers ready for quickly sharing.

My surgeon-to-be was disappointed in me. My age didn’t give me an excuse — I’d been dealing with these issues since I was nine years old; I needed to know about the disease I was supposedly fighting. And so he gave me a homework assignment — at our next appointment, I needed to know more about Crohn’s disease. I needed to be able to give him a more concrete answer. It was my body and my problem, after all; shouldn’t I know something about it? How else would I be able to make informed decisions and combat the issue most effectively?

At the time, I was honestly a bit upset. This experience did not endear my surgeon to me. But begrudgingly, I did what he asked, and I found that learning more about what I was facing actually did make me feel a lot better. I felt more in control and more able to do something about it. But this article’s purpose isn’t to teach you about Crohn’s disease; I’ll leave you to Google if you require more information on it.

In the end, the actions we took to prepare my body for surgery (no eating for a month and a half, only intravenous nutrition) gave my insides the time and rest needed for not only the inflammation to subside but also the intestinal hole to heal, and so surgery was deemed no longer necessary.

That I did end up having that piece of intestines removed 10 years later and that at that time it was called into question whether or not I actually have Crohn’s is irrelevant — the lesson I learned from my almost-surgeon when I was 17 is still true today: that the answer to any problem is always, to some degree, to find out more about it.

Beyond the Hospital

And this doesn’t just apply to a disease or injury, of course. It applies broadly and fundamentally in work and life. That is to say — always keep learning. It doesn’t have to take long, you don’t have to find out everything there is to know about nuclear physics, but when you comes across a barrier at work or in life, learn about it. Whether it’s a new system, a particular unfamiliar feature, or a term that a co-worker uses — if you don’t understand something about it, find out what you can. Google it. Look it up in a dictionary or encyclopedia. Read about it. Even a simple search will allow you to suddenly know more than you did, leaving you that much better equipped to deal with what’s in front of you.

The assumption that one knows everything they need to know already — whether this is regarding work, a hobby, or life — is incredibly dangerous. It will stop you from continuing to move forward. It will stop you from improving. Being an expert at something is an incredible accomplishment and not something I’m trying to make less of, but the most successful people in life factually are the ones who never stop learning. The willingness to find out more about the situation — or word or person or process — in front of you is something we must all cultivate in our lives as habit.

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The first barrier we must overcome is thinking we already know what we need to know about something. When we get past that fixed viewpoint to realize — “hey, maybe we could learn something new here,” is when we find ourselves capable of true growth.

Take it from me — don’t sit with a problem (or illness, in my case) for 8 or so years before you bother to find out more about it. Do what you can to learn about it; because when you actually understand the problem in front of you, finding a solution will be that much easier.

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