Gold Plated Mercedes

I spent today in surgery. 95% of this time was anus-related. When my preceptor left for clinic and handed me off to another surgeon, he looked at her next case on the board and said with a smile, "Oh, this can be your butt day!"

Among the lower GI tract things I saw was a colonoscopy preceding another operation. It was the first time that I've experienced the amazingness of all that gas they pump in you coming back out again. W.O.W. My wife and her brother on their worst days combined could not rival those amazing sounds. The human body does not cease to amaze.

But I digress. As the title suggests, what was most on my mind today was this other aspect of life in surgery: money and prestige. The dear safety-net hospital where I'm spending my third year is not exactly a hotbed of stereotypical egomaniac fancy-car surgeons. The attendings are by and large nice, even if their unanticipated questions can be scary, and with few exceptions actually seem to realize that they treat human beings rather than body parts.

But our residents are not from the dear little hospital. Indeed they are not. Now we've had nice residents, residents who like to teach, residents who send you home when they can. And we've had grouchy residents, apathetic residents, residents who say nasty things about patients or the medicine team. But before today I hadn't hung out with a cares more about money than people resident.

His reputation preceded him, having told my classmates that a gold-plated Mereceds was in his future. Needless to say, I went in with some trepidation, but I was still thoroughly dumbstruck. First I was put off when he returned from a consult saying "that patient was being an idiot so I had to put a nasogastric tube in him." Which is not only crappy and dehumanizing, it doesn't even make sense. Then, while closing up after a gall bladder surgery, he started telling me how he's really not sure what kind of surgeon he wants to be yet.

Him: I mean, realistically, you have to think of the money. The way things are going, you have to go into something you can count on. Really plastics is the only thing that makes sense.

I try to figure out what to say to him. Something like, "I'm pretty sure that all full-time surgeons are wealthy by any reasonable measure," might have been appropriate.

Him: But I really value being the best, and the best surgeons are really the transplant surgeons.

This sounded somewhat better to me... I mean even if he doesn't care too much about patients, I appreciate that he cares about doing a good job. But, of course, before I could say anything...

Him: But you know, different kinds of people need transplants. There's just no money in it, you end up having to take care of all these people without insurance and poor people.

So much for medicine being a service profession. This is when I was wishing that thinking, suturing, and speaking weren't so hard to do all at once.

Him: Or I could do GI. It's just a one-year fellowship so I could be making money right away. But you have to be on call. Really nothing makes as much sense as plastics. Even if Obama screws up health care more and reimbursement falls off, you can just do more cosmetic cases.

At this point I was in full-on medical anthropologist mode, taking mental notes on how not to be. Plus it was about his third nonsensical Obama dig of the morning, but in the moment I was more fascinated (car-wreck style) than pissed.

I'm not sure what bothers me more, that he seems to be more interested in money than patient care, or that he's so blatant about it. It's been said time and again, that going into medicine for money just doesn't make sense. Getting into a to business program is a much better return on investment by far. That knowledge just serves to piss me off further that people take up room in medical schools and competitive training programs when their end goal could be better served elsewhere and their spot could be filled by someone who wants to make peoples' lives better. When you have that value set, money over people, becoming a doctor strikes me as a cover. You can be an ass, but still get some social cred for doing good.

Not to mention that the idea of wanting a gold-plated Mercedes is totally outside my understanding of reality. I am more effected by the consumer culture than I would like to be, but I can still recognize that money and stuff won't actually buy me contentment. Money doesn't buy happiness, we know this. It seems like someone steeped in the culture of evidence-based medicine ought to delve into some sociology research and reexamine life choices.


  1. The next time we see each other PLEASE ask me to tell you the story of my colonoscopy. It involves the gas coming back out and your brother in law and you won't be sorry.

    Also, the peek into what goes on behind the scenes is so fascinating as someone who is only ever going to experience the medical industry from the patient side of things. The heartening thing is this guy is so unusual it inspired you to write a post about him. I'm glad the bulk of residents you have run into are nothing like him.

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Please feel free to let me know if I fudge up the medical jargon. I try to keep it all straight, but no one's perfect. :)