Feed the Joy

By Anna Olds, MD  | June 23, 2022

It is intern year. My pager is beeping uncontrollably as I wait on hold with radiology to expedite a scan. I go over my color-coded check boxes, putting in orders, calling consults, and typing notes, so that I can make it down to the OR—my only respite from the rigors of intern life. 

However, when I finally make it there, it’s an uphill battle. I ask politely for the suture scissors as I watch my senior resident tie a stitch. Instead of handing me the scissors, the scrub nurse ignores me, making it abundantly clear that I am not welcome in her space. I try to find a way to be helpful to my resident without being in the way. Eventually, I change strategies and try to be content watching, hoping for a chance to put in a few subcuticular sutures at the end.

As an intern, I mostly felt like an unwelcome burden. I was told that I was “too excited,” “too eager,” and that I needed to “relax.” Once, when I finally got to the OR at the end of the day, my fellow said, “You’re not a fellow, so you shouldn’t be in the operating room.” 

I was so overjoyed and grateful to have matched into my dream specialty and program, I couldn’t help but be excited about my job. We have the privilege of taking care of human beings every day and operating on hearts. What could be more fun and more fulfilling?  

Several years later, I am not the same excited intern. Although I still am grateful for my position and still view this as my dream job, there was something that was taken from me during training.

After being surrounded by unhappy senior residents, tired scrub nurses, and an overwhelmed, underfunded medical system for so long, it is easy to forget why you chose this path. Remember when you applied to medical school with big dreams of changing the world? Or when you started residency as a brand new intern 4 weeks out of medical school and you were excited just to be there? Not only is surgical training grueling, but it also can drain you of the very passion that brought you there. 

I believe that when it comes to interacting with each other and influencing our juniors, we can do a better job of “feeding the joy.” Whether that means spending 5 minutes in between cases teaching your student how to tie a one-handed knot, or paging the intern to the OR to help close, we must remind each other in small ways of why we love this job. 

Now that I am more senior, I try to protect my juniors whenever possible. That doesn’t mean I don’t have high expectations, but residency is already hard enough, so we may as well help each other. 

As a second year resident on a 24-hour emergency general surgery call shift, I saw one of the interns who had been working extremely hard. The interns on that rotation play doctor, social worker, and secretary, so burnout is common. I had to be at the hospital anyway, so I told him to give me his pager and head out early to enjoy an extra hour of his afternoon. He sent me a message that evening to tell me he had gotten home in time to see the sunset, and that he was so grateful to have had this simple pleasure because he hadn’t seen the sun in a while. I felt like I had helped someone that day, which made my own shift a little bit happier. 

When you notice that your junior or student is working hard, recognize that effort and provide some positive encouragement. Try to engage your juniors in normal conversation and ask them about themselves. They may surprise you with their hobbies or their background. If I hadn’t asked, I never would have learned that one of my current interns is from Alaska, and we wouldn’t have bonded over skiing and snowboarding. 

By encouraging those who are junior to us, with every bit of excitement and individuality they bring to the table, we can help keep their joy alive, and possibly have fewer burned out surgeons in the future. And, speaking from experience, you may find that by feeding their joy, you are actually feeding your own. 
 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.