Hardass Heart Surgeon Brought to His Knees


Rest in peace, Ernie
Rest in peace, Ernie

I know … blogs are not meant to be public forums for the personal issues of the author, but in this case, I think this post provides some insight into the life of a surgeon, which is one of my objectives for this blog—insights into the writing life, insights into the surgeon’s life.


Surgeons are stoic by nature, so what brought this one to his knees? A few days ago I had our beloved family pet euthanized. I knew I was going to shed a few tears, but I didn’t anticipate the uncontrollable sobbing that overwhelmed me (mercifully, I was in the room alone). As a heart surgeon, I lost my share of patients, both on and off the table. The mix of emotions experienced when patients die runs the gamet from great sadness to self-loathing, and I often had to fight back tears, but I never sobbed uncontrollably. (Well, I did once, when I was a research fellow at the NIH, and we admitted a developmentally delayed young man who was scheduled to undergo his fourth or fifth open-heart procedure the next morning. I knew his chances of survival were slim, and he had no family or friends, so I took him out for pizza and ice cream and tried to bring some joy into the final hours of his existence. Yes, he died on the table, and yes, I had to lock myself in the on-call room and sob. But that was the only time.)


So why did euthanizing my dog have such a profound effect, while losing patients, although very difficult, never reduced me to a blubbering mess? I think it has do with connections—human to human, or to another living thing. As surgeons, our connections to our patients are tenuous at best. We meet, discuss the procedure, and schedule them for the OR. Then we operate, and they either get well and go home, or they don’t. The boy at the NIH? I spent a couple of hours with him, saw him laugh and play, a child in a young man’s body, oblivious to what awaited him the next morning. I formed a connection with him, and I think it was all the stronger because he had no connections of his own. On that night, I was the only person in his life. And with my dog, Ernie? Any pet owner knows how strong the bond between human and animal can be. So, in retrospect, I guess it’s no surprise that losing a beloved pet can be so painful. He was, after all, a member of the family, and family connections are the strongest of all.

I’d love to hear your thoughts regarding the value we place on our pets.

One Response to Hardass Heart Surgeon Brought to His Knees

  1. Well I learned something new today. My husband has a bigger heart than I ever imagined. I cry during hallmark commercials, but I did not seem to cry that much with Ernie. NOt sure why but possibly because we have bigger fish to fry. My mother-in-law just moved in an we have our hands full. She is suffering from early onset Alzheimers and life has changed drastically for us all.I think that is why Rich broke down. The stress of the slowly fading memory of a once strong mother and the loss of his cute sweet puppy dog. THIS TOO WILL PASS!!! We must go through hard times to build character and lifes ups and downs make us who we are today! Kathleen

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