Survival Pearls for Surgical Interns

by Raj Sawh-Martinez, MD

The scared excited nervousness of the first day of surgical residency has worn off, and now expectations have begun to develop.  The first few months brought new, incredibly intense roller-coaster rides of emotions.  From the day you connected with your patients and truly felt like you made a difference, to the day when your work piled up to insurmountable levels, to the day when sick patients became critically ill.  You have faced another human being dying in front of you; you have been part of teams that have brought back others that were on the verge of death.  As a surgical intern, you have had days when you wanted to cry, scream, hide and even beam with pride.  These are the memories that all surgeons inevitably share.

Living in the trenches of a surgical internship can be a gut wrenching, lonely experience for many.  The journey from medical student to resident to surgical attending is a notoriously steep trek, necessitating our long 6+ years of training. “Surviving” intern year remains as hard as ever despite the significantly greater resources and awareness that exists among residency programs today.   In our program, under Dr. John Persing’s leadership, we are blessed to face these challenges in an incredibly collegial atmosphere.

From chairman on down, we are supported and guide each other through the journey of providing excellent care for our patients while we learn, teach, and perform cutting edge research.  The following is a compilation of some key phrases and perspectives that have been passed down to us, surely originating from many amazing ex-residents who figured out the keys to making surgical residency look easy!

1. Love Hate Love
Your year has been, and will continually be filled with ups and downs.  You will have a love-hate relationship with work with great and terrible moments sometimes in the same day! You must rely on your friends and family to help guide and balance you.  They will keep you grounded, and keep up the love for the challenge of becoming a surgeon.

2. Water off your back
In all workplace environments, conflicts arise, intense situations develop, and you will be faced with colleagues who deal with stress in different ways, and who may be more or less gifted at providing constructive feedback.  Through the stress, try not to take anything personally, which is admittedly easier said than done.  Do your best to accept and grow from feedback, learn from mistakes and teach others from them.   Remember that errors don’t define who you are, but how you react to them are part of your character.

3. Customer is always right
Your focus, care and dedication should always be towards your patients.  You can’t teach caring; so stay focused on what matters most.  Never loose perspective that no matter how hard things may get for you, our patients are the ones who are vulnerable, scared and entrust us to do our best to provide them with excellent care.
4. They can’t stop the clock
For the days that are overwhelmingly sad, frustrating, infuriating, disappointing or that make you feel inadequate – remember that time stops for no one! No matter how challenging a day or experience has been, a new day will start soon – your week will be over soon, and a new year will come.  Residency is a temporary condition where the rough days are training you to deal with the rough days that may occur when you’re fully on your own as an attending.

5. Everyone survives.
Many others equal to you, with similar strengths and weaknesses have passed through the same halls you now occupy.  Use your friends, family, colleagues to gain perspective, advice, love and support.  You must hold steadfast in your passions and see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Hard work, passion and determination have surely gotten you this far – double down on all three, roll with the punches and you too will soon be looking back fondly on the craziness that is intern year!

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