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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 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. 

After retiring from my clinical practice, I have continued to work with the MCW's Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Institute for the Transformation of Medical Education, where I served for two years as the editor-in-chief of the weekly Transformational Times newsletter, helping identify essayists, honing submissions, and contributing written work. I helped create two volumes of collected essays from the newsletter. Click here to find the books.  

 

I am one of the nonfiction editors for the literary journal, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, reviewing submissions and helping with production. It has been enlightening to edit a journal where none of my own work was ever accepted.  

Throughout my career as a surgeon, I always viewed the three imperative tasks of a physician to be this: to listen more than speaking, to accompany those who suffer, and to be empathetic with all those we meet. It is all about hearing and responding to stories. Even in retirement, I am attempting to live this way. To those who read this, thank you for accompanying me on my journey.  

_____________________

Bruce H. Campbell, MD FACS is a Professor Emeritus at the Medical College of Wisconsin, having held appointments in both the Department of Otolaryngology and the Institute for Health and Equity (Bioethics and Medical Humanities). He holds a faculty appointment in the Kern Institute. 

 

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 joined the MCW faculty in 1987. He completed Columbia University's Certification of Professional Achievement in Narrative Medicine in 2019. He retired from clinical practice in 2022 but continues to volunteer, working with medical students and residents on narrative projects and in seminars. 

 

His clinical focus was in the diagnosis and surgical management of head and neck cancer. He had an NIH grant to study cancer survivorship, investiaged a variety of head and neck cancer topics, and published papers on 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.

Now that the crazy deadlines, demands, and documentation of a clinical practice no longer drive his existence, he continues to write and edit, while trying to focus on the things that are most important. He wonders why he can't get more accomplished. 

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 grandsons.

From Nursing Assistant to Surgeon

Blending Surgery and Stories

A Fullness of Uncertain Significance
Bruce H Campbell, MD at 18

1972 - About the time I became a hospital orderly at age 17.

Bruce H. Campbell, MD as a second-year otolaryngology resident in 1982

1982 - As a second- year otolaryngology resident.

David A. Campbell, MD and Bruce H. Campbell, MD in 2022

2022 - In the operating room with my son, David Campbell, MD

David Ting, MD, Avinash Mantravadi, MD, Bruce H. Campbell, MD, and colleagues in Kenya

2023 - In Eldoret, Kenya with surgeons from the US and Kenya

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