Blending Surgery and Words
Where there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.
- Paul Kalanithi, MD, When Breath Becomes Air
The first time I set foot in an operating room in 1973, I wielded a mop and wide-eyed bewilderment. My experiences working summer and holiday breaks as a hospital nursing assistant gave me a “bottom-up” perspective on physicians and nurses-–a perspective that shaped my life and my professional career. Although it was easy enough to identify role models, some people were cruel and condescending. Some surgeons were detached and spoiled. I watched hospital staff cry. I retrieved surgical instruments that had been thrown across the room. I witnessed mistakes that hurt people. I cleaned up vomit and blood. I saw death.
It was distressing, yet I had peeked behind the curtain. The stories kept me coming back for more. Remembering them made me who I have become.
I began writing essays in 2000, first through a monthly column for our cancer center newsletter, and then through a blog on my hospital’s website, Reflections in a Head Mirror. I have also shared essays on “Lake Effect,” on WUWM – Milwaukee’s NPR station. As my writing developed, I began publishing in widely-read publications such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) column, “A Piece of My Mind,” as well as placing essays in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, and Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics. I have also published humor, poetry, and fiction in literary journals including The Examined Life: A Literary Journal of the Carver College of Medicine and Creative Wisconsin.
My next adventure was to compile my favorite essays into a book. A Fullness of Uncertain Significance: Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace was published by Ten16 Press in 2021.
Despite my career focus as a surgeon, I have always viewed the two imperative tasks of a physician to be this: to accompany those who suffer and to be empathetic with all those we meet. To those who read this, thank you for accompanying me on my journey.
Bruce H. Campbell, MD FACS is on the faculty at the Medical College of Wisconsin, holding appointments in both the Department of Otolaryngology and the Institute for Health and Equity (Bioethics and Medical Humanities). He is the Associate Director of the MCW Medical Humanities Program.
He grew up in the Chicago area and attended Purdue University and Rush Medical College. He completed an otolaryngology residency at MCW and a head and neck surgery fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He returned to Milwaukee and has been on the MCW faculty since 1987. He completed Columbia University's Certification of Professional Achievement in Narrative Medicine in 2019.
His clinical focus is in the diagnosis and surgical management of head and neck cancer. He has done research in cancer survivorship, a variety of head and neck cancer topics, and medical student reflective writing.
He has an interest in global surgery in under-resourced regions of the world and has worked with surgical partners in Tanzania and Kenya.
He and his wife, Kathi, live in suburban Milwaukee where they raised four wonderful children. If you don't have to be somewhere soon, ask him about his grandson.