One of my favorite stories is about a battle-surgeon who comes to doubt his work. He’s deep in the fighting on the edge of a war that seems like it will never end. They bring men to him, he patches them up; as soon as they’re well enough, they return to battle, only to come back to him later with a sheet over their heads.
As anyone who has watched M*A*S*H knows, this slowly drives doctors mad. My father was a flight-surgeon in Vietnam and only recently have I come to appreciate the profound scars that time left on his life.
In the story, the battle surgeon leaves his post and wanders up a forested mountain, asking himself Why? Why do I continue to do this every day? Eventually, in the silence away from the fighting, he finds his answer: Because I am a doctor. Only then can he return to his work on the battlefield.
From the first time I read it, this story resonated with me. (Isn’t language wonderful? “Resonate” as if the story were the tolling of a huge church bell whose sound waves reverberated through my flesh and bones.) Through the years, when I experienced setbacks at work – people who doubted my approach or my skill, people who agreed to change and then reneged – I bowed my head, remembered the story, and returned to the battlefield to do my small part on behalf of the people in the front lines.
Over the last three years at work, I found myself reaching for this story more and more often. Leadership changes; reorganizations that forced out colleagues that I respected; friends who retired earlier than expected; executives who refused to apply change management to strategic initiatives because “there isn’t time” and kept saying that for months while their initiatives floundered and people suffered. “Because I’m a doctor,” I told myself time and again. “Because I’m a doctor.”
And then the battle overran my field hospital. I had watched my comrades fall one by one. I suspected that the change management that I had been doing under the guise of operations would puzzle my new supervisor as much as germ theory would confuse medieval physicians, and it did. He replaced me with someone who would practice medicine as he understood it and offered me a position close enough to see the wounds but with no hand on the knife – and I knew I couldn’t stay. Oh, I fought the change; for three or four days, I fought with everything I had. After the last skirmish, although I was technically waiting for the answer, I knew that even if my negotiation had been successful, my heart had already left. I returned to my office, emptied my file cabinets, and made two piles: one with core information that I would turn over to my replacement; and one with my personal notes, the thoughts, memories, and experiences that had defined who I was, and that I knew my replacement wouldn’t want.
In the novel, A College of Magics, the main character, a princess who becomes a wizard, finds herself confronted by a kind of magical black hole that threatens to swallow up her world. To close the rift, she feeds it her main competitor — the one who had created the problem — with all her witchy power. That doesn’t work. She feeds the rift the illusions that masked its presence, the tentacles of power that it had woven through the fabric of the space around it. She feeds it parts of the castle that ruled the land around it – the neighboring kingdom to her own beloved land, a place where she has been exiled — and eventually that neighboring kingdom itself. She feeds it her memories of her life, her arrival in the magical town where she studied, her adventures in a metropolis of wizards, sunrises, sunsets, journeys. As she sacrifices them, they lose their power for her and become just remote stories, as if she had heard them from someone else but never experienced them herself. Nothing seems to work. Finally, she gives up her own country, the land she has fought for, clung to, stood up for through the entire book.
I fed the shredder that second pile I had made. I let it all go.
Looking back now, I wouldn’t do that again. I just was so over it; so tired of fighting. The surgeon turned her back on the battlefield, left her scalpels and tools, and set off to find a new life that didn’t involve healing people.
Afterwards, I wondered why I couldn’t remember what I had done for the last three years. I couldn’t write a resume. When people spoke to me about my work, it was as if they were speaking another language. I couldn’t figure out where to go next. I couldn’t find my path.
Recently I was given a gift: a vision of how I could take what I loved best about my work, let go of the distractions, and focus on the core of what I do best. Slowly the memories have started coming back, a sense of value, a sense of strength. I can return from the mountain and take up my robe and staff once more, prepared to do my small part in the larger battle.
Because I am a doctor.