My Commencement Speech to Future Spine Surgeons

As physicians across the country are completing their four-year medical school education, many are simultaneously finalizing their decisions about which fields of medicine they want to endeavor into for their residency and fellowship training. Orthopaedics, and spine surgery as a sub-specialty of it, is often a specialty front-runner for many eager young docs.

I think the early perception is that orthopaedic surgeons make a lot of money and are often in the media spotlight, aspects that are enticing to a young medical student pulling all-nighters and struggling to make ends meet. But I’ll tell you what, this field of medicine is ONLY for those willing to do two things—put in the incredibly hard work on a daily basis and most importantly, have a heart for healing patients.

doctor comforting a patientPassion and Purpose
To make it as a spine surgeon, you must have a true passion for this field of medicine. It is a great field, but it isn’t enough to just be good at it. You must love it. Patients will notice the difference between a spine surgeon who cares and one who’s simply in it for the “stuff” that comes along with it. No matter which model of employment you ultimately choose—private practice or hospital employment, you’re going to face challenges. Your passion for the field and a sincere dedication to helping patients must be your driving force.

Minding Mentors
Behind every great spine surgeon is at least one mentor who showed him or her a glimpse into what this field is really like—and how passion drives clinical decisions. My mentors showed me that if I set my mind to it, anything is possible. They showed me that they made mistakes along the way too. Such is the human condition. But every mistake is a lesson learned and I learned from their mistakes too. Mentors can show you all the ways that spine surgery is truly an art. You may have two patients who present with the identical symptoms, but their correction may require you to perform different techniques in order to achieve the best outcome.

Patient Perceptions
Few factors are more defining of a spine surgeon’s reputation than how he or she interacts with patients. Perception is reality. Most cases requiring the aid of a spine surgeon don’t have to do with repairing broken bones. They mostly involve degenerative processes over time—chronic conditions like diabetes that many patients have been suffering from for what feels like forever to them. A patient’s quality of life should be among the chief focus areas when assessing a case.

To be a great surgeon, you’ve got to be an excellent listener. Take note of what your patients are telling you (you can learn a lot about them by what they say and sometimes, even more about them by what they don’t). Be honest with them. Take time to explain and present all of the options, even the ones that don’t involve surgery. Give them your advice, but ultimately they must know and feel comfortable with the fact that whatever it is your presenting or recommending is entirely their decision.

Treat every patient the way you would your loved ones. Do your absolute best for every single one of them. Each patient is an individual with different needs, wants, hopes and dreams. There is immense satisfaction in changing someone’s life for the better—helping a patient with chronic, disabling pain get better and resume their life. Seeing the joy on their faces and happiness expressed in those follow-up appointments post-surgery is simply amazing. I can think of few careers that deliver such an incredible sense of accomplishment.

Congratulations Class of 2016. This spine field and a hurting world need your dedication, innovation and compassion. I expect great things from each and every one of you.