I stood and watched off to the side as the cart wheeled in through the wide double doors into Operation Room 1. It was my first day of shadowing a pediatric neurosurgeon, and so as I waited for the doctor to enter the room, I tapped my feet to the rhythm of an invisible beat and wrung my hands behind my back. A young boy with short-cropped brown hair lay propped against the pillows, his back straightening as he entered the room. He was young—he couldn’t have been older than 2 or 3—and he looked around with a gleam in his wide blue eyes. Clutching the edges of his blanket, he looked about the white room. He looked at me for an instant, just a second, just as long as he did for all the others in the room, and he tilted his head. So had I, I realized, as I straightened mine.
He turned his attention to the bearded man next to him, dressed all in green with his facemask down.
“Lay back and relax,” he told the boy as he motioned to the nurses on either side. “You’ll only feel a little pinch.”
The boy lay back, and with his eyes closed, he almost looked serene—except for the fact that his hands trembled lightly by his sides, the corners of his eyes were scrunched shut, and his jaw was quivering. The nurses placed the breathing funnel over his nose and mouth as the anesthesiologist injected the contents of his syringe into the connected bag. After a minute, I saw all of the boy’s limbs slump against the bed, his head sinking deeper into the pillow.
They began to flurry around, pausing to check on the boy’s heart rate and pulse displayed on the monitors at the top of the walls. As they conducted their business, I turned to the woman next to me. She wore the same green scrubs as the rest of the people in the room, me included, with her mask pulled up to cover most of her face.
She introduced herself as Molly, a nurse-in-training at the Children’s Hospital. After exchanging pleasantries, I introduced myself as the day’s undergraduate shadow. She seemed particularly surprised that I was a freshman engaging in shadowing, but approved of me learning more about the profession I wanted to pursue.
Both of us turned to see the double doors swing open again, Dr. T striding confidently inside. Although the shortest woman there, she had an aura of confidence that came with her long experience as a neurosurgeon. She turned to me as Molly assisted her with her gloves and body apron.
“And how are you today?” she asked brightly. After I responded, she began to explain what she was going to perform in that operation. All “suited up,” she stood on the footstool and began her work. I watched in morbid fascination as she turned on her cauterizing scalpel and began cutting into the boy’s scalp. A small amount of blood began to trickle out as she dug deeper, causing her to periodically cease her cutting and mop up with a towel. This, to me, was one of the most shocking things I learned about surgery. I always considered the skull to be a precious object, a part of the body where every incision has to be made delicately and shallowly. To see a cut so wide taught me, practically, how much room there was, as well as the healing capabilities of the human body.
At this point, it would be remiss to not discuss the atmosphere of this operation. Throughout the whole procedure, save for the more delicate and fine cutting, Dr. T was talking with the nurses and helpers around her, all the while monitoring and advising the resident on the next steps.
“You know how it is,” she said in passing. “What you learn in medical school, you throw away when you enter residency.” While probably exaggerated to some extent, it still rang with a certain truth when presented with the situation that day. Although the resident could answer her theoretical questions about inserting a shunt, he still made some mistakes when explaining practically where he would make incisions and where he would thread the catheter tube through—a fitting example of how theoretical knowledge is, in the moment, theoretical.
And yet even beyond that, what I realized when looking at Dr. T perform the surgery was that the atmosphere wasn’t overly tensed, or strained, or even nervous. Instead, as I saw the doctor and all of the nurses, residents, and attendants talking to each other throughout the operation, and as I heard the music playing softly in the background, I realized that this was what being a doctor was about. It wasn’t the death-defying heroics that might be shown in movies, nor was it necessarily an incredibly mundane, monotonic series of patients every day. Instead, I saw as Dr. T performed every operation with a smile on her face, and the way she interacted with her peers in the operating room showed me how much she valued her collaboration in her work. And then I realized that just like any other profession, being a doctor meant truly being in love with the duties of being a doctor. I thought back to the bearded anesthesiologist—although his face looked stern, and his figure imposing, I never saw a frown on his face, and after he had injected the patients, he would always converse with the others in a light-hearted manner. In some ways, even he was truly enjoying what he did in his work.
And so as the boy was wheeled out of the operating room, and the music in the room kicked up a notch in volume, I looked to the group of doctors and nurses in green scrubs and said to myself, Yes, this is what I want to do. Then when Dr. T shook my hand goodbye for the day’s observation, I shook her hand back, a smile curled on my face. I would become a doctor, for this was what I truly loved best.
Kartik Iyer is a pre-medical student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he double majors in Neuroscience and English Writing. He actively researches the neuronal basis of drug craving relapse, as well as potential treatment. During summers, he volunteers extensively with Food Lifeline, and has already delivered 5,000 meals to his hungry local neighbors. Since he achieved the Top 20 in the nation in the USA Biology Olympiad and a perfect SAT score in high school, he runs USA Biology Olympiad and SAT tutoring classes. In his free time, he enjoys writing and contributing to his writing group. He loves to explore the city and try new cuisines with his friends.