Podalirius: Surgeon and Survivor

June 1, 2017

Medicine is a calling that few will answer. There are approximately one million physicians in the United States. Of those, some 18,000 are General Surgeons. It is a very small, exclusive club. The life of a physician is exciting, challenging, rewarding, and hard. The rates of divorce, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide are above average compared to other professions. Perhaps the call of Medicine is the voice of a siren. I am a surgeon. These are the stories of my life.

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“Sing, O goddess, of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.” Homer, (The Iliad)

Hope and despair, triumph and tragedy, life and death; physicians bear witness to the full range of human experience. Doctors share the burden of their patient’s lives. It is a privilege to do so, but there are consequences. The exposure to so much emotion weighs on and scars physicians: Not all survive.

In Greek mythology, Podalirius and Machaon are the sons of Asclepius, the God of healing and medicine. The Rod of Asclepius, with a single entwined serpent, is the sigil of physicians. Please do not confuse the Asklepian with the Caduceus, the winged rod of Hermes wrapped by two snakes. A doctor (or a wizard) should know better. Podalirius and Machaon, like their father, were surgeons and healers. Together they joined the Greek expedition to Troy (Homer’s Fighting Surgeons), more to serve their fellow Greeks than to fight the Trojan army. Of course, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” (Helmuth von Moltke the Elder).

Life and war are sometimes indistinguishable: Both can be messy, nasty, and unpredictable. There are many stories detailing the Trojan War including Homer’s Iliad. In most accounts, Machaon died before the walls of Troy. Podalirius sought retribution for his brother’s death and had to live with the results. Can a physician rationalize the taking of a life? Are not the tasks of a soldier incompatible with the role of the physician? In turn, Podalirius had to live with the guilt of survivorship. “There, but for the grace of God go I” (John Bradford), but why did I live when my brother did not? Finally, how does a doctor reconcile the act of war? Tending to the ravages of disease is an expected part of Medicine. Illness and accidental injury are bad enough, but man is creative. Humans are adept at inflicting hurt and misery on the world. The waste of it all is hard for physicians (or anyone else for that matter) to justify.

The personal trials of Podalirius are not unique. A person does not have to go to war to feel the effects of human brutality. It is a daily occurrence for many people in our country. Certainly, doctors are not alone in sharing the woes of their fellow men: Such is life. Medicine is one of many difficult, heart-rending, willingly chosen vocations. The public admires health professionals for the work they do. We should acknowledge however, that a physician’s public stature might come with a private cost.

“What does not kill me makes me stronger”. Nietzsche was an idiot, or maybe his quote is just taken out of context. Take it from me; what does not kill us often leaves us crippled, bitter, and broken. We spend our lives hiding the damage, but our scars make us human. How we deal with the trauma of life defines us, for better or worse. I am a son, a brother, a husband, a father, and a friend. I am a physician and a surgeon: It is not my profession it is who I am. I have not been to war, nor have I lost a brother. My 56 years of life have been busy though, surgeons are rarely shrinking violets. I have experienced great personal and professional highs, and I have been crushed by errors and recriminations.

This is my story. I share it in an effort to affirm my humanity. I write, therefore I am.

Judge me for what I say and how I have lived my life.

These are my scars.