Combating Stress in the Operating Room

There are few places that are as uniquely stressful as an operating room. During surgery, doctors hold the fate of their patients’ lives in their hands and one small error could be the difference between a positive and negative outcome. With those as the stakes, even the most practiced surgeon experiences some level of stress.

But anxiety before surgery is a positive emotion. Anxiety fuels you to study the diagnosis, prepare for the operation, and remain focused in the operating room. It is the emotion that helps us, no matter what field we are in, to focus our attention of the task at hand.

I approach surgery the same way a professional athlete would before a big game. When I perform a tumor resection, I study films (the patient’s scan), familiarize myself with the tumor, review the literature, and make sure we are prepared for unexpected situations. By being better prepared, I maximize the patient’s chances for having a good outcome and, therefore, increase my confidence as I approach the surgery.

Stress fuels my focus during the operation, but there comes a point during every successful surgery that the stress eventually subsides. It comes at the moment where I gain control over the pathology, and know that I am going to be successful at treating it. Once I pass this inflection point, the stress and anxiety dissipate. It is a very satisfying moment: a release of anxiety and a sense of satisfaction. It is, I think, what drives us all. That moment when we know we have done something of value for those who depend on us.

Unfortunately, negative outcomes are also a reality for every surgeon. These experiences weigh heavy on your heart at first, but with time they become a part of you and change who you are for the better. It’s similar to dropping a bitter cube (rather than a sugar cube) into a hot cup of tea. At first, the cube sits in the tea like a large lump. It eventually dissolves, but the makeup of the tea has changed forever.

Negative outcomes make you more humble, more human, and ultimately, a better physician. A doctor that is confident in their humanity will strive to act morally and always look to do the right thing for the patient. It is the anxiety that comes from knowing the responsibility we carry, that drives physicians to be a better version of themselves.