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Choosing general surgery: Reflections from a fourth-year medical student

Why do I want to become a general surgeon? The real question is, why wouldn’t I. I enjoy the operating room, I find the cases interesting, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Even more than all these (the usual) reasons, there’s something unique about surgery. Being a surgeon is unlike any other career: you operate on people. You improve — and sometimes even save — lives.

As a result, a unique bond exists between patients and surgeons. Patients allow surgeons to alter their life. Surgeons have the responsibility of a life in their hands. The complications are real, but the outcome and satisfaction are exponential.

Female surgeon in the operating room

In preparing for this role, general surgery residents learn how to perform everything from a mastectomy to a colectomy to a carotid endarterectomy and so much more. But surgeons must do more than learn the range of surgical procedures, they must also learn medicine. A patient rarely comes to the hospital with solely a surgical issue. They usually present with other medical problems (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, heart disease), which surgeons must consider during management.

As such, general surgery is an intense residency, with 30-hour call and four days off per month. As a surgery resident, I’ll be pushed to my limits and then some. It’ll be exhausting, to say the least. In fact, the amount of work hours deters many medical students from picking surgery.

Since I know wholeheartedly I want to become a surgeon, the long work hours don’t bother me. I know my free time will be limited, so I’ll have to use it wisely. Many surgical residents raise a family during residency, though doing so is challenging.

I’ll have more freedom to determine my lifestyle after residency. If in my practice, I want to operate a lot, then I’ll expect to work more. If I want to spend more time with my family, then I'll expect to operate less. Ultimately, I’ll be able to choose whether to pursue a fellowship, enter straight into private practice, or split my time with academia or research. General surgery offers many options.

Though sacrifices will be required, the end justifies the means. Residency will be exhilarating and exhausting. I’ll operate a lot and learn a tremendous amount in an encouraging and educational environment with the support of family and friends. And the sacrifices will be worth it because I’ll be doing what I love. My motto: “Do your best, and forget the rest.”