He’s an excellent surgeon, she wrote. Like it was an excuse. Or like it was supposed to make me feel better. He’s an excellent surgeon, she wrote, but he can be abrupt when he thinks he has all the information he needs.
That’s why, she wrote, she was there to help and validate my feelings. That’s why she was responding to the message I sent to him after our appointment. After I read the visit summary he’d written which, as the person with the body in question, I found lacking in most of the relevant details about the neurological and other issues I’ve been dealing with for the last six months.
He’s an excellent surgeon, she wrote, and all week I’ve been thinking about it. It’s been stuck in my teeth like a fibrous piece of asparagus I can’t quite chew down into something digestible.
I’ve been thinking, maybe he is an excellent surgeon. Maybe I’m not giving him due respect and deference. Maybe I’m making too big of a deal of how I felt during the appointment.
Early in the appointment, before Mike was there, while he was parking the car and getting through the pandemic safety checkpoints to see if he could join me, I sat across from the doctor, mask to mask, in the windowless exam room. I shared with him that my mother had died right before this all began. She died in October. This started in November. My voice caught in the tears in my throat. The grief still resting on the surface of my skin.
He paused for half a second, nodded, sort of shrugged, and said nothing in response.
The words “my mother died” hung like one of the silk nightgowns she used to wear—fragile, thin, forgotten on a clothesline outside. I wanted to go get it, but it was out of my reach.
He went on. Questions, interruptions. What else?
When I expressed exhaustion at the six months of pain and symptoms and said, “This has been going on for a long time,” he casually glanced at his clipboard and said, “Just since the fall? Not that long.”
I bristled. In the one instance in which I felt like I could stand up for myself during the appointment, I replied, “Well, it’s been long for me.”
After that, Mike came into the room. I was grateful he could join me.
When I tried to explain the pain and symptoms I was experiencing day-to-day, the doctor cut me off. “That’s your business,” he said.
What did that even mean? I was too surprised to say anything, but I shot Mike a look. He looked back. I know he didn’t need to see my mouth to get the grimace.
After a little while, the doctor threw out the name of a syndrome. “If I’m right, this is what’s going on with you” he said, and I could see the smirk in his eyes, under the mask, “and I’m always right.”
I wondered if others found that reassuring, or charming. The neatly tucked in confidence, the cockiness that was supposed to make me smile, but wasn’t really a joke. I didn’t feel like smiling.
Without asking, he wheeled his chair over to me, took my wrist and drew a number of horizontal lines with his black pen. Then a few vertical ones. Showing where he’d do the surgery. It would be quick, he said.
After the appointment, when I saw the visit summary and that he’d missed a lot of significant information, I thought about just letting it go. But I knew he had ordered a diagnostic test for me, to confirm what he said he already knew, a test that will be painful and expensive, for which I’ll have to pay out of pocket.
I thought about just letting it go, but decided no. It matters for me to speak up, even if it would take me a lot of energy to write that message. This “not that long” six months has been exhausting, painful, frustrating. The last two of them have a pandemic overlay. Not to mention grief. I’m managing more than I feel up to managing right now. But I took the time to write and advocate for myself, to add the information his notes were missing, to speak up about grief as part of the picture.
I also took the time to start the message with a thank you, for his time, for the appointment, for moving up the diagnostic test so I didn’t have to wait until the end of June. I took the time to remove a line of the message that felt too snarky, a little rude. Because I understood that everything he offered wasn’t problematic, and I wanted to offer him respect as a whole person. Because it mattered to me to acknowledge him. Because that’s what I do.
So I wrote, and his assistant wrote back, to make the process easier for me. Mostly, her message made me sad. It left me with a fibrous piece of old asparagus to chew, until finally I had to spit it out.
He’s an excellent surgeon. He just can be abrupt.
I already knew how I felt about the situation. Sad. Frustrated. Queasy. Angry. So I put my brain to work. I asked myself if excellence in work can be based solely on the main task of the job. I thought first about my own work. I do a variety of things—mentor, teach, facilitate, write, edit—so I picked one. Editing.
I’m a highly-skilled developmental editor. I’ve done it professionally for over a decade. When a writer comes to me with a book, I know that to do my job well, I need to consider and attend to the story and the writer in equal measure. Often, the writers who come to me have been through tremendous loss or trauma. I know that if a writer comes to me grieving, their grief is automatically a relevant part of their current writing process and what they’re working on. I know that if I draw lines or make marks on their manuscript for a quick fix, without care for who they are and how they got to me, without affirming the beauty in their work, I will likely shut down their creative process. This is based on brain science. And heart knowing. If I get right to the cutting, without considering the story as a whole and the writer as a whole, they may never revise their book, which is why they came to me in the first place. So I always hold the intention to meet each writer on a human level before, during and after we’ve worked together.
Then I thought, well okay, maybe I’m unusual. So I challenged myself to think of other people whose work I’d experienced.
A tide of recent memories rolled in, leaving a smattering of glimmering shells on the shore of my heart.
The man at the café at the Pittsburgh airport who asked me how I was. I’d just arrived after a red-eye from Portland. I was sleepless and raw and I told him my mother was dying. When he brought out my coffee and I tried to pay, he said “No, no, this is from me, made with love.”
The nurse at the hospital who came in one morning when I sat alone, next to my mom’s bed, after spending the night with my sisters in the room. My body was stiff from the weird plastic couch I’d tried to rest on, my sinuses ached from crying, my heart hurt from everything. I was, as my mom would have said, if she was conscious, “holding down the fort,” while my sisters went to shower, change clothes, and get kids off to school. This nurse came in and put a tray of breakfast food in front of me and a hand on my shoulder. “Hey honey, you need to eat something,” she said, sounding a lot like she was someone’s mother, too.
The cashier at Trader Joe’s, two weeks after my mom died. It was my mom’s birthday, and I was picking up stuff to go and celebrate, in as much as that would be possible, with my sisters. When the cashier finished ringing up my order and asked what I was up to that evening and, in tears, I told her, she said, “Hold on a second,” and “what was her favorite color?” Moments later, she came back with a big bouquet of blue flowers and tucked them into my hand.
The bank manager who stepped out of his meeting to get me the information I needed to figure out how to cash a savings bond my mom had lovingly taken out for me when I was eighteen, because I needed that three hundred dollars in those weeks after she died. When I got choked up explaining things to him, he said, “I’m so sorry,” and when I left the bank, passing by the door of the room where his meeting was, he stepped out of the meeting again to ask if he could give me a hug and wish me well.
Or the big teddy bear of a man checking me in at Alaska Airlines on my flight home from Pittsburgh to Portland, after what had felt like the longest month of my life. He grinned when he saw the gigantic suitcases I wheeled up to the counter and was about to playfully give me a hard time about having so much stuff. But as soon as I shared with him why, that my mom was dead and I was carrying precious cargo from my childhood home, as soon as the first tear left my left eye, he leapt into action, as did the woman working next to him. They waived checked baggage fees, and after he tagged my bags and put them on the conveyor belt behind him, he actually leapt over the suitcase scale to come out and wrap me in his arms. And when I got to the gate for that excruciating flight home, he and the other woman who’d been at the check-in desk, came to get me for early boarding and arranged for me to have a whole row to myself. The angry loud lady who sat behind me and what happened on the flight itself was a whole different story, but I will never forget those two Alaska employees.
I don’t have to think too hard or feel too much to know that all of those people were excellent at their jobs. Not because they knew how to make a perfect latte or accurately check in passengers and luggage. Not because they knew how to change an IV bag or manage a bank or a cash register. But because they didn’t hesitate to reach out to me from their hearts the second they knew I was grieving a horrible loss.
I don’t think I’m an excellent editor because I know how to cut out parts of a sentence that aren’t letting it shine. I’m a good editor because I know and acknowledge that each sentence belongs to a particular story and a particular person who’s telling that story.
And I don’t think someone is an excellent surgeon because they know how to cut a body. It’s because they know each body is particular and belongs to a particular person with a particular life.
Skills alone don’t make us excellent. Understanding ourselves and the people we work with as part of a larger whole, and behaving accordingly—that’s what does it. What I’ve come to in my reflections this week is this: the ability to compartmentalize is not a mark of excellence; it’s the ability to integrate.
Because of power hierarchies and cultural preconceptions and assumptions, some people in some professions often get a pass on this. When someone who has enough power or makes enough money to have an assistant is rude or dismissive or abrupt, no big deal. He’s just a genius surgeon or quirky CEO. Or, he’s just a man. Someone will step in to pick up the pieces. On the other hand, the people with the least power or currency, cultural or otherwise, are often expected to integrate. Teachers and mothers, for instance. Those who identify as women, for instance.
This changes, I think, when I challenge assumptions and hierarchies, in and outside of myself. When I don’t let myself say “Oh, that’s just how he is,” or “That’s just the way it is,” or even, “That’s just how I’ve always done it,” and allow something to continue even if it makes me queasy or doesn’t make sense. This means speaking up for myself and for others, articulating what I understand about the value and importance of interconnectedness.
This week, this moment right now, I’m feeling especially grateful for all of the people I’ve encountered who live their lives and do their jobs, mindful that they and the people they serve are part of a greater whole. In the last several months, the things that have moved me the most—and I don’t think I’m alone in this—are the stories about those people. The nurses and doctors who treat patients like family, especially when their families can’t be in the room with them. The landlords who cover the rent of their tenants because they don’t actually need the money to meet basic needs, and their tenants do. The restaurants making sure that the kids who relied on school lunches still get fed even though they can’t physically go to school. The grocery store clerk who smiles at me with his eyes and bothers to ask how I am while I wait in line to go inside and shop.
I’m moved by stories and moments like these, I think, because I feel the hunger for it in me and in the world around me. I felt the hunger for it as my mother was dying and after she breathed her last breath. I feel the hunger for it in the neuropathy in my hands, the coiled pain in my upper arm and shoulder. I feel the hunger for it in my weary, lonely heart. The longing to be remembered, held, and cared for as a treasured part of one big beautiful puzzle. When that longing is met and fed, that, I would say, is the epitome of excellence.