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Bruce Campbell MD

A Fullness of

Uncertain Significance:

Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace


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Updated: Dec 31

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Adina Kalet, MD MPH, the director of the Kern Institute, asked a small team of MCW faculty to create a newsletter that would keep our medical community connected during a very uncertain period in medical education. With the wonderful support of Kern Institute staff, the Transformational Times newsletter premiered in mid-March 2020 and has published weekly since then.

The birth and growth of the Transformational Times

The newsletter consisted of four to six (or more) essays each week, plus poetry, artwork, and announcements.

Although the focus was on innovative approaches to medical education, our team tried, as much as possible, to highlight the thoughts and efforts of underrepresented minority students, residents, and faculty. This became particularly important as 2020 unfolded, first with the murder of George Floyd and subsequently with the acute awareness of racism in America. More voices were added as the country churned through the lead up to the 2020 election, a need to talk about issues affecting women and reproductive rights, widening disparities affecting both urban and rural populations, veteran's issues, and the 2022 midterms. New national conversations emerged which affected, both tangentially and directly, medical education.

The team widened its roster to include students. We developed thematic issues. We coaxed more “reluctant writers” to share their work. Even though life seemed to be taking small steps back toward normality, we realize that our newsletter had developed momentum, a local/regional readership, and a mission.

It was also clear, however, that most of the previously published essays quickly disappeared into the internet ether. How might we get some of the most compelling writing in front of a larger audience?

Creating our first book

In May 2021, Dr. Kalet suggested that we create a book of selected essays during the newsletter's first sixteen months. Since I had published my own book through Orange Hat Publishing | Ten16 Press in nearby Waukesha WI, I facilitated conversations between Orange Hat and the Kern Institute. The teams agreed to work together to create a book of essays.

Working with Editor Jenna Zerbel, Art Director Kaeley Dunteman, and Publisher Shannon Ishizaki, we were able to go from a concept to a book in less than eight months. Character and Caring: A Pandemic Year in Medical Education was published in December 2021.

To create the content, we hired a reader who reviewed each of the published newsletters and sorted the essays by relevance to a wider audience. Once I had the list, I re-worked each of the essays, adding short summaries and editing them for clarity and consistency.

This process was not easy. While preparing my own book, I knew the essays already and had used (relatively) consistent styles of grammar usage, punctuation, and narration. With the new book—and although I had previously edited most of the essays—there was a lot of work to be done to make them consistent and readable. I also had to write the rest of the sections needed to create a book.

The process, though, was very rewarding. I enjoyed editing for others. I become more comfortable sprinkling commas and paragraph breaks into the essays. I tried very hard to leave intact what I could yet offered suggestions and alterations to improve clarity and readability. I incorporated changes that were consistent with grammatical rules and usage. It became a mission to perfect word usage, build arguments, and solve a puzzle. I was invigorated.

The book turned out well. The Kern Institute and MCW gave copies to several other schools and to each 2022 MCW graduate.

Creating our second book

In May 2022, Dr. Kalet suggested that we do another book, Character and Caring: Medical Education Emerges From the Pandemic, as a follow-up to the first volume. We started the process again.

The person who selected the essays previously was not available, so I spent several days culling through the newsletters that had been published since the cut-off date for the first book. I gathered essays into nine themes with each section introduced by one of Dr. Kalet’s essays.

I created a section of “Notes,” which amplified essays with references and information. I also created sections for “Contributors” and “Acknowledgements.”

After building one master document, I found that it was about 15% too long, so I cut several great essays and trimmed others that were to be included. Eventually, the book was down to about 65,000 words.

Two of the other editors, Kathlyn Fletcher, MD, MA and Wendy Peltier, MD, offered to create a study guide, selecting key essays from each section for discussion and reflection. That was a wonderful addition.

Again, Jenna Zerbel did wonderful work as the book's editor. She has a great and careful eye. The MCW faculty editors each reviewed the edited version and found only a few things that remained to be fixed. Kaeley Dunteman did a great job with layout and with identifying open access images to introduce each section. I even snuck one of my own photos from Kenya into the book to open the “glocal” section.

With all of the changes approved, the book went to the printer in late November 2022 and was back in time for the New Year. The book was another project that went from concept to completion in eight months.

Like the first volume, the editing process went well. Some of the essays required pretty extensive revision prior to publication, but most of the work again involved making the styles consistent throughout the volume. Because I have more experience and confidence, this volume went more smoothly than the first.

Next steps and challenges

We know now that we can create quality books, thanks to our partners at Orange Hat and the Kern Institute. Dr. Kalet, working with Kern Family Foundation, envisions creating the MCW_Kern Institute Press to publish at least two affordable, state-of-the-art medical education-related books each year. We are already in conversation with three groups with great ideas that deserve wider exposure.

We need to better understand how to get the word out and to get books into people’s hands. Mass marketing is expensive and low-yield. How do we reach our primarly market and "tell our story"? How do we best utilize social media? What is the optimal way to use discounts? Networking? Electronic formats? What are our targets? How do we get to the next level?

I enjoy writing but have re-discovered that I enjoy editing. These books, and our future projects, give me the opportunity to explore these twin passions. It should be fun.

#medicaleducation #meded #KernInstitute #MCW_KernPress #character #caring #orangehatpublishing #Ten16Press

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What Readers are Saying About
A Fullness of Uncertain Significance

In this tender and candid collection of short essays, Dr.  Bruce Campbell illuminates how much medicine is truly  the sacred act of holding vigil with and for our patients.  Through his reflections, we get a glimpse of how surgeons  hone their instincts, grow through challenges, and cope with  disappointment as they navigate the uncertainty inherent in  medicine. Through his polished lens, the reader understands  how even in the pressurized world of surgery, heavy with the  responsibility of healing through a scalpel’s cuts, there are  moments of intimacy that are filled with grace. 


—Rana Awdish, MD, FCCP, FACP, author of In Shock: My  Journey from Death to Recovery and the Redemptive Power of Hope  

Dr. Bruce Campbell turns his scalpel on his own history  as a surgeon, probing the medical field past, present, and  future. His vibrant stories illuminate the fundamental human  underpinnings of medical science, bringing to light the glories,  tragedies, imperfections, and uncertainties we must all grapple  with. Eminently readable and richly satisfying.  


—Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, Clinical Professor of Medicine  at New York University School of Medicine, Editor-in-Chief of  Bellevue Literary Review, and author of When We Do Harm: A  Doctor Confronts Medical Error 

Dr. Campbell’s reflections will resonate with those who treat  cancer patients as well as those who have had cancer themselves.  Medical students and residents will also be inspired by his life’s  journey as a surgeon and teacher, aspiring to their own joyful  and meaningful lives in medicine. 

—Julie Ann Freischlag, MD, FACS, FRCSEd(Hon), DFSVS,  CEO Wake Forest Baptist Health, CAO Atrium Health, Dean of  the Wake Forest School of Medicine, and 2021-2022 President of  the American College of Surgeons.  

In this rich collection of stories and essays, Dr. Campbell  reflects on his years of caring for patients and training young  doctors to follow in his footsteps. With compassion, humility,  and shimmering prose, he shares the joys, pains, and somber  responsibility of being a surgeon. 

—Gayle Woodson, MD, surgeon, educator, and award winning author of After Kilimanjaro and Leaving La Jolla  

Bruce Campbell is no average surgeon and no ordinary  writer. He takes the excellence of his medical trade and weaves  the challenges, exhilarations, and tough decisions of surgery  into beautiful prose. Here is one who clearly doesn’t reduce  patients to a diagnosis, but who sees them as whole persons  worth getting to know. The chapters in this book are like  windows into the humility and generosity of a man I’d like to  have as my personal physician. 

—Peter W. Marty, editor/publisher of The Christian Century 

With his willingness to delve beneath the surface, Bruce  Campbell has created a deftly interwoven series of lessons gleaned  from poignant moments of a fulfilling surgical career. In a warm,  compassionate, and honest voice, Dr. Campbell delivers to the  reader not just insights on medicine, but truths about humanity.  

—K. Jane Lee, MD, author of Catastrophic Rupture: A  Memoir of Healing 

Humorous and humble, serious and sublime, these lean essays  offer a glimpse behind the surgical drape to show what it’s like to  be a cancer surgeon over the course of a long, rewarding career.  From Campbell’s first invitation into the “inner sanctorum” of the  O.R. as a nurse’s aide while in college, through tender interactions  with patients, to his projections about the profession when he is  long gone, this smart, sensitive surgeon illustrates how doctors can  listen to, care for, and learn from their patients. He courageously  goes to the “hard places” as well as sharing those special moments  that make it all worthwhile. Early in the collection, Campbell  writes, “Besides being a surgeon, I am also a human being.” This  beautiful book is about both. 

—Kim Suhr, MFA, Director of  Red Oak Writing and author of Nothing to Lose   

In lucid and succinct vignettes, Dr. Campbell illuminates  the myriad of emotions and sensations that accompany a life in  surgery. These stories of persistence, camaraderie, shame, grief,  guilt, and regret 

vantage point of experience. These ideas serve as the springboard  to discuss unique, personal insights whose wisdom is of import to  anyone in the healing profession. With elegant and engaging prose,  Campbell beautifully expresses the honor it is to be a physician. 

—William Lydiatt, MD, Chief Medical Officer Nebraska  Methodist and Women’s Hospitals and Professor of Surgery,  Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska 

“Over the years, I have made an uneasy truce with failure,”  says Campbell in the opening pages of his debut anthology, and  yet his stories are anything but. Captivating, heart-wrenching,  inspiring—he chooses his words as meticulously as he conducts  his surgeries. 

And it’s just like a surgeon to keep you up in the middle  of the night. “One more story,” you’ll tell yourself, but with  Campbell’s reflections, it’s hard to stop. There’s a familiar ease  with which he flourishes his pen; everything falls away, and it’s  almost as if you’re sitting across the table from him as he recalls.  You laugh when he laughs, you cry when he cries, and you wait as  he waits. His memoir of stories is sure to become a rite of passage  for future doctors and patients alike, enjoyable little tunes that all  hum together in a harmony of sound. 

Turning the last page of Campbell’s novel, I succumb to my own  “fullness of uncertain significance”—I have been charged to seek  meaning, to reflect, to sit in the silence of his reverberating truths.  

—Olivia Davies, MD, poet, writer, and dermatology resident at  Massachusetts General Hospital



The words “clarity” and “grace” take on heightened  significance in this honest yet lyrical set of essays by Bruce  Campbell. The immediacy and intensity of these stories  immediately swept me into the consulting room and OR. I felt  as if I were a privileged witness to an almost sacred encounter  between surgeon and patient. Subtle language lays bare a primal  relationship. It is impossible to read this book and not be  changed by the experience. 

—Carol Scott-Conner, MD, PhD, Professor Emeritus of  Surgery at University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and  author of A Few Small Moments: Short Stories  

Dr. Bruce Campbell sets a new milestone for doctor-writers. As  an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon, he treats patients  with the most advanced and aggressive cancers imaginable. Internists  like me wonder how head and neck surgeons like him do it; this  book gives me the answer. Dr. Campbell brings luminous sight  to his work. His writerly gifts let him capture the delicate and the  solemn, the tragic and the everyday dimensions of illness. Not a  set of doctorly instructions (though instruct it does), A Fullness of  Uncertain Significance: Stories of Surgery, Clarity, & Grace lays open  the profound mysteries and truths and awe about this life of ours.  These stories will change lives. 

—Rita Charon, MD, PhD; Bernard Schoenberg Professor  of Social Medicine and Professor of Medicine; Chair of the  Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics; Executive Director  of Columbia Narrative Medicine, Columbia University, New York  City; Co-author, Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine 



In this compelling, insightful, and beautifully written  compendium of stories, Bruce Campbell shares the lessons he  has learned, and continues to learn, throughout his medical  education and his years as a highly successful surgeon, faculty  member, and teacher. A Fullness of Uncertain Significance is  refreshingly honest and introspective, exploring not only many  of the desirable outcomes when he had been faced with a broad  array of professional challenges, some potentially life-and-death,  but also those outcomes that were less than he had hoped for.  Readers will appreciate the author’s willingness to reveal that,  “As a surgeon, I have made mistakes that have hurt people. This  should not surprise anyone since, besides being a surgeon, I also  am a human being.” Providers, teachers, and students of health  care in every field and at every level of service will benefit greatly  from what the author has accurately labeled “Stories of Surgery,  Clarity, & Grace.” This isn’t merely a book about one man’s life  as a surgeon. It is a book about the need for understanding and  compassion when dealing with others, especially those in distress. 

—Myles Hopper, PhD, JD, author of My Father’s Shadow 

In this collection of essays, Dr. Campbell pulls the reader into  his Milwaukee otolaryngology clinic, the operating room, and his  medical work in Kenya. He tells story after story with wonder,  humour, and affection. He looks back on his medical training and  fantasizes about medicine in the mid-twenty-first century. He lets us  in on his unique vantage point on humanity, and does so with such  humility and grace that his own humanity is never in question.  

—Martina Scholtens, MD, author of Your Heart is the Size of  Your Fist

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