I met Michael when he came up to Calgary to do a year of research at Foothills Hospital. He’s pretty smart. Before we started dating, I really had no idea what was involved in being a neurosurgeon, I just knew of it as a cliche.  What neurosurgeons do, and everything they need to learn to become one, is pretty interesting!

What do you do?

I’m a doctor; specifically, I’m in the first year of my residency training in Neurosurgery.

At what point did you know what you wanted to be?

For me, it was a bit later than most of my classmates in medical school, who generally say they were ‘pre-med’ from they day they could talk. I started out studying Philosophy in college (university if you’re reading this in the Commonwealth), and decided about halfway through that I wanted to practice Medicine instead.

As to a particular specialty, I knew fairly early in medical school that I would end up in a surgical subspecialty and was hooked on neurosurgery pretty much from the start. The procedures are amazing and there is no more intricate and beautiful anatomy anywhere in the body, so I got hooked.

Is being a resident what you expected? 

The first year of residency is a very classic experience. It’s pretty terrifying for the first few days as a doctor.  For example, my first day in the hospital was a 30-hour shift on call, covering 25 or so Intensive Care Unit patients.  The fear goes away quickly though, and then you’re forced to learn on an extremely steep learning curve.  Now nearly a year into my training, I feel much more comfortable taking care of very sick patients.

Being a first-year resident can be pretty tedious at times, as time spent taking care of the most mundane tasks in patient care greatly outweighs time spent operating.  That said, our specialty in particular is one in which subtle changes in the appearance of a patient or tiny mistakes or omissions can have lethal consequences. As a result, our training is one of supervised repetition until excellent patient care, or surgical technique, becomes habit. So even though the very rigid hierarchy of neurosurgical training can feel restrictive at times, I’ve tried to very hard to remember the importance of excelling at and being responsible for a specific role within a team.

What does a normal day look like for you?

I usually arrive at the hospital at 4:30AM to start seeing patients in the morning and spend the day running around seeing new patients and taking care of our inpatients. If I’m particularly efficient, I make it down to the OR to assist on a case until I’m called or paged away.  The day usually ends sometime between 7 and 8PM or so, and then I go home for some combination of food, studying, working on research projects, getting to the gym, and hopefully spending some time with my lovely fiancée.

How do you deal with having to tell a patient’s family really bad news? Is that the worst part of your job?

Yes, it is. Telling a family that their loved one has or is about to die is never a pleasant thing, which we do quite often given the nature of a large part of neurosurgical disease. As a result, you quickly develop an unwritten script and a cadence for leading families through bad news.  However, it’s at its worst with young patients who suddenly die (as is often the case with head trauma and intra-cranial bleeding). Having a routine helps to get through it, because the next extremely sick patient doesn’t wait for you to dwell on that experience. That said, it can be pretty hard to shake screams of anguish from loved ones after giving bad news.

What makes it all worthwhile?

Even at its worst, I love my job. I never go home without being stuck on how I could have been better or more efficient, or having identified yet another hole in my knowledge base. I work all day long with brilliant people.  Also, I get to operate on brains and spines, which is OK I guess…

Is there any advice you would give someone else that thinks they might want to follow in your footsteps?

Be prepared for a very long training process, of which each stage is harder than the last. I can’t imagine going through any of it over again, and I’ve only just begun my specialty training (2255 days to go, as of today). That said, I love my job and wouldn’t want to do anything else with my life. I feel very fortunate to have identified a couple of excellent mentors over the years, I think mentors are indispensible to learning what type of a doctor, and what type of a person you want to become. Lastly, I believe that success in life comes down to a relatively few sink-or-swim moments when you prove yourself. Remember that all the studying and all the hard work is just so you know how to float when the time comes.