Friday, May 29, 2015

Cardiac Surgeons Were Once Untouchable

About 30 years ago, coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG) was the mainstay of treating narrowed coronary arteries that supplied blood to the muscle of the heart.  Such surgery was predominantly, if not all, performed in the public hospital system where there were long waiting lists.  Demand outstripped supply of such service and cardiologists were at the mercy of cardiothoracic surgeons who could determine which of their patients they would accept for treatment and the priority afforded to them.  The CABG was a genuinely life saving type of surgery and the high success of this surgery by highly trained surgeons provided them with unparalleled status in the hospital pecking order.  The cardiac surgeons received the adulation of the press and public for the life saving work that they were performing and sure enough, they came to truly believe that they were the heroes of the medical profession.

The behavior of cardiac surgeons was one of self-entitlement and demand for unquestioned respect and admiration.  Whilst capable of great empathy and care for their patients, they treated members of their surgical team and own profession with disdain and at times unbelievable cruelty. As providers of essential services that were in short supply and high demand, hospital administrators would bow to unreasonable demands. They were effectively untouchables.

Whilst there are too many stories to mention, here a couple that I recall as vividly as if it happened yesterday. 

When I was a junior doctor, I had softly remarked that my nose was itchy under the theatre mask. This was overheard by “sir” who then came up to me and squeezed my nose and twisted and said “this will fix it” and went off laughing.  The pain was excruciating and I quietly slipped away outside the operating room pretending that it did not hurt at all. My nose was bleeding.  Once cleaned up, I returned to the operating room and pretended that nothing had happened.  I did not dare challenge him for this assault and I also knew that nobody in the room would dare to support me for all of us were afraid of him. 

My six months as a surgical registrar to “sir” was a tough gig psychologically, The work itself and at times long hours was never an issue but the constant barrage of abuse was taxing.  I was so ashamed of admitting that it was getting to me that I recall not even discussing it with my girlfriend of the time (who was also a junior doctor) or any friends as I felt that I could not afford to demonstrate to anybody any sign of weakness or potential inadequacy to make it through the rigors of surgical training. “Sir” loved an audience and we would usually have up to twenty people in the operating theatre to observe such as medical students and physiotherapy students.  He just adored the physiotherapy students, particularly the attractive female ones who appeared to get special attention and this was returned with blushing adulation.  Not uncommonly, I would start closing up the wound and he would go out to make a phone call. He would then return and yell to the entire room “Henry, you’re meant to be getting better, not worse” and would then storm out of the theatre.  The operating room would then be so quiet that you could hear a pin drop above the noise of the anaesthetic monitoring devices. I could go on and on, but I made it through.  I survived.

In later years I had transferred training programs and went from being a general surgical registrar to a urology registrar.  At a different hospital, I entered a service lift and the only other occupant was a cardiac surgeon, a different “sir”.  He did not acknowledge me in any way but what did I care.  The next floor, a wardsman entered the lift and tripped over the lip of the elevator floor and bumped into “sir”.  Yes, he committed the greatest possible crime and touched “sir”.  Over the next couple of floors, “sir” proceeded to abuse him “how dare you blah blah blah …..” and refusing to listen to his repeated attempts to apologise.  The wardman was petrified that the surgeon would lodge a complaint and that it would lead to his dismissal.  I was so shocked that I stared in silence and whilst he had little ability to impact on my future career, I was still too frozen in fear to say anything.  Immediately after the event, I felt enormous guilt for having said nothing. For me it will always be one of those moments that you remember where something could have and should have been said.

These stories are pretty tame compared to others I have heard. The fortunes have changed significantly for cardiac surgeons.  Coronary stents are now used where surgery was once necessary. Cardiologists control the flow of work to cardiac surgeons and can make or break the success of their practices.  I have personally seen where a cardiac surgeon at a hospital I worked at was completely starved of work to the extent that he had to take a salaried position interstate.  There was never an issue with his clinical judgment and technical skills but with a totally obnoxious personality from the cardiac surgeon old school, his private practice disappeared in favour of other surgeons who were prepared to be more personable.  Cardiac surgeons can no longer be seen to be self entitled poisonous individuals.  Everybody knows that cardiologists are the masters of cardiac surgeons and what huge fall it has been from the top of the ivory tower.

Having said all that is above, I have great respect for my cardiac surgery colleagues. Their professionalism and care for my own family members who have needed their skills will always be appreciated.  I really believe I have seen the worst and now best that these surgeons can offer.  


At least in this surgical specialty of cardiac surgery, technology and medical advances have had a positive affect on surgeon behavior. 

18 comments:

  1. OMG. This is the first time I have ever seen anybody write about this. So so true. They were such assholes and it was impossible to criticise them because everybody outside of the hospital system thought they were god.

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  2. I'm from Melbourne. I think here it was more a thing with neurosurgeons.

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  3. Reminds me of my time in cardiothoracic surgery that I hated when I was an RMO in the early 1980's. Back then we thought that this behavior was normal and acceptable. What were we thinking?

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  4. We are still far from normality and surgeons of all specialties still get away with murder when treating their underlings. Careers have been destroyed and in good prospects too. It is time to take action, not a helpline(that immediately assumes that the bullied needs psychological help as he/she can't take it) but a proper mechanism where these abuses can be dealt with and the perpetrators punished accordingly to their despicable behaviours

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  5. I reckon once of the above incidents occured at Royal North Shore Hospital.......a name comes to mind too. Anyway could be wrong. Thanks for the post.

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    1. I was thinking it was either RPA or Westmead.

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    2. Ha, I was thinking it was either RPA or RNSH. A particular name at the former comes to mind. It was so rife amongst these surgeons. They acted like they were gods.

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    3. My vote goes to RPA. I bet I'm thinking of the same name....

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  6. Cardiac surgeons and neurosurgeons were the worst. About time it was said. Enough of this polical correct bullshit in not calling out specific areas of surgery that deserve special attention

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  7. Throughout my rotation as a junior doctor in cardiothoracic surgery during the early 1990's, I was called a fucking idiot no shortage of times. It did at least help me decide what specialty I did not want to do.

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  8. Thanks Dr Woo. I agree that cardiac surgeons were the standouts for the bullying culture in surgery. I must admit that I never thought gave it much thought at the time but in afterthought, they really were a bunch of prima donnas.

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  9. Thank you for writing this. I always felt that I could never say anything bad about these guys because they seemed to have public opinion thinking of them as gods. Finally the truth is out there. My time with them was the most miserable of my professional life. They were the ultimate bullies.

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  10. Neurosurgeons are the group with some serious problems. For such a small group, they are in the media for all the wrong reasons. Eg Chris Xenos over sexual harassment claims, Helen Maroulis over bullying claims, Suresh Nair over drug & impairment claims and Charlue Teo over coat of surgery and yhese are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

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  11. On the money with this one Henry. Ever since stents came into popular use, it has felt like sweet revenge.

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  12. When I did a cardiothoracic surgery rotation in Sydney and before stents were in use, I had a great time and they looked after me well. They seemed to go out of their way to encourage an interest in their specialty. I ended up doing general surgery instead but when I think back, they were pretty tough on one of my colleagues. I was tied up in my own career to really take that much notice. In hindsight, they seemed to have their favourites and if you were one of those, it would be plain sailing. For me, I have no bad recollections but I can see that this was not the case for everybody.

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  13. Not is said of this

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  14. Now that the EAG draft report has been published, more individuals will come out with their stories. All the surgical specialties have had their share of bullies. My own personal experience is similar to the findings of the EAG report which suggests that cardiothoracic surgeons were in a class of their own.

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  15. I spent time as a junior doctor at RPA over 20 years ago. The cardiothoracic surgeons were a bunch of self entitled pricks. I was always able to hide behind the registrar who had my back but I watched him being constantly humiliated. I don't know how he put up with it.

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