She was the most terrifying surgeon in the hospital.
In an age where white coats were to be worn only by men, she walked fiercely into medicine anyway. She took the sneers and barking from senior physicians but she held her chin held steady. Back then, medicine was not a woman’s game. With each step she climbed, she tacked on another piece of armor and she grew stronger. It toughened and polished her, and she was built into the indestructible surgeon she is famous for today.
I have watched chief resident’s fingers tremble beside her. I have watched fellow surgeons, renowned and respected in their own right, fall silent as she stepped into the room. Scrub nurses, usually bustling and preparing while chatting with the circulator, stand alert with fingers poised and eyes glued her hands, anticipating her next move. Medical teams in the hospital, young doctors visiting from out of state, senior doctors trailing the end of their careers – they all know her name.
For weeks, we had stood shoulder-to-shoulder in silence as she performed many of the biggest surgeries known to medicine. The infamous Whipple procedure – a grueling 8 hour minimum- was her favorite. Her fingers seamlessly twirled around the surgical instruments, and I longingly watched as she carefully cut open the belly, clamped arteries, and unsheathed the pancreas. I stood perfectly still, often for over 10 hours, with my hands carefully planted on a corner of sterile draping. Others had warned me: “She prefers medical students to simply observe. Whatever you do – don’t grab anything.”
Yet something in me resonated with her. There was the smallest hint of a smile in the corners of her mouth under her mask when her eyes met mine. I recited my patient presentations I had spent hours memorizing for her clinic and could see a flash of approval in her stone cold expression before she spun on her heel to enter the patient’s room. Then one day, she handed me her suture. That day in the OR, I was taught the sacred ritual. She began to signal for me to cut her sutures with the slightest flicker of her fingers. One day, I nearly tripped over my own feet in shock as she stepped back from the operating table and silently waved for me to assist the chief resident in stapling the bowel in half.
She was like no one I have ever met. During my last day on her service, she unwrapped the ice cream sandwich socks I had bought for her and she squeezed the breath out of my ribcage. And I will never forget the words she told me:
“Hailey, you are a surgeon. I can see it in you. Do what you are.”