I wonder if the first incision came as a shock for Dr. O’Neill Kane. A new scalpel blade makes incisions through even tough tissue as if it were melted candle wax.Dr. Kane is a famous alumnus of Thomas Jefferson University, not only because he tattooed his initials in morse code on every patient he operated on but because he decided he wanted to take out his own appendix. He successfully performed this operation on himself, only with the assistance of local anesthesia and later went on to repair his own inguinal hernia (although with this surgery he became to tired and the responsibility of tattooing his own name on his body was left to another surgeon, he was 70 at the time, he deserves some slack).
Was Dr. Kane simply a glutton for pain? While I can’t get inside his head enough to know his exact reasons, I know there are several important reasons he would put his body through this type of experience.
First, he understood that general anesthesia during his time was dangerous. Ether was difficult to dose and many patients, for medical reasons, couldn’t tolerate it at all. Kane believed he could perform the surgery with only the use of local anesthesia. Many who needed emergency appendectomies that could not have ether would be saved.
Second, he wasn’t comfortable performing this surgery on patients without first understanding what he was putting them through. In no way am I advocating for practitioners to have to endure each procedure they recommend to their patients but Kane’s actions underscore an important part of medicine– empathy. It is easy to have sympathy, even more difficult to have empathy. Empathy involves stepping into the experience, as best as possible, and meeting the patient there. Similarly to the Jewish practice of Sitting Shiva (as Jobs friends sat with him following his hardship). As practitioners we must “sit shiva” with our patients. Not falsely stating we know exactly what they are going through but assuring them we are committed to walking with them through it.
Finally, he wasn’t content doing what was expected. Practitioners always have the opportunity to do more than what is expected for their patients. This isn’t easy however. There are many constraints on the medical provider: time, money, resources, constraints placed by hospitals or institutions, constraints placed by boss’s. These can serve as excuses for not doing more than expected or they can serve as hurdles to victoriously clear.
As we follow Dr. Kane’s example, let us seek to figuratively “remove our appendix” by entering into the experiences of our patients and going well above what is expected for them and for their health.