Picture of Hely ShahHely Shah is a medical student in the Class of 2018 at the University of Alberta


As a medical student in pre-clerkship, I was known to my classmates as the one who watched recordings of all the lectures rather than attending in person just to have the opportunity to scrub in more often in the OR. I was driven to shadow every surgical specialty at least once. Suffice to say, I love surgery: the precision; the ability to lead a talented and hard-working team as an attending surgeon; the ability to cure a disease instantly (or, more commonly, after hours of arduous work); the gratitude of patients; the hands-on approach… the list goes on. To my surprise, when I expressed a desire to pursue a surgical residency, my colleagues were skeptical about my commitment. Their simple yet commonly expressed sentiment regarding surgery: only pick a surgical residency if there is nothing else I love more in life. At the time, I thought it was hyperbole; how could one love surgery more than family, friends, and various other passions? However, as time passed and I increasingly heard stories of burnout and residency transfers with bleak job markets, I wavered in my defense of surgery. I questioned my shadowing experiences, presuming that I might have had an overly optimistic and biased view point.

With the passage of clerkship, I eventually found my ultimate happiness in Internal Medicine and changed the course of my career. When I began my general surgery rotation in hepatobiliary surgery, I prepared myself for a service notorious for rigor and long hours. However, the stark contrast from the myths about surgical residency was obvious; yes, these were some of the smartest and hardest-working residents in the hospital, and they had difficult days when the cases were unexpectedly complicated or when OR timings were delayed — but they persevered. The residents had other passions and maintained a healthy social life; the difference, however, was the way my senior’s eyes lit up when she was told she could scrub in on a liver transplant surgery, or the pride that the junior resident took in precisely suturing a gastrojejunostomy. I admired that my chief resident would take the extra effort at the end of a long OR day to achieve the most visually appealing ostomy site: “It has to look exactly like flower petals blossoming.” When I worked with the team, I was instantly able to connect with them — not because I still shared their love of surgery, but because we bonded over having the same favorite local coffee shop, fawned over cute Instagram animals, and discussed the best methods to plead with my mom to let me have a puppy. It was then that I reflected on the advice I had been given about loving surgery.

Although I was fortunate that the advice that dissuaded me from surgery serendipitously led me to a field that I believe is my calling, I can imagine the rumours regarding surgery may seem daunting to new medical students and potentially deter them from a residency that could be fulfilling for them. Nearing the end of my general surgery rotation, if I could talk to my second-year self, I would tell her this: surgery does not have to be your only love to be a successful surgeon. Rather, if surgery gives you a sense of purpose, drive, and satisfaction that you can not find in other areas of medicine, pursue it with all your might. In fact, not only will you be pursing your passion, but you will have an amazing team that you can share other parts of your life with and who will become your strongest supports. After all, all work and no play made Jack a dull boy — and surgical residents are anything but dull.