Bruce Campbell MD

A Fullness of

Uncertain Significance:

Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace


A Fullness of Uncertain Significance_2D
  • Bruce Campbell MD

I have been grateful to talk to groups about my life, surgery, ambiguity, narrative medicine, and A Fullness of Uncertain Significance: Stories of Surgery, Clarity, & Grace. Recent talks and reflections:

February 18, 2022 - Albert Einstein College of Medicine Department of Otorhinolaryngology

This was a virtual presentation. The residency program director, John Bent, MD, read about the book in ENToday, a national newsletter for the Triological Society (the only national print coverage the book has garnered, by the way). He emailed and asked if I would talk to the department.

It was a wonderful experience! I did some reading and conversation. A surprise was the presence of Marvin Fried, MD, chair emeritus of the department and an early role model of mine from residency.

I had some great email interactions with a couple of the Einstein residents and faculty after the talk.

March 14, 2022 - Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery

I have known and admired many of the Hopkins faculty over the years and, in preparation for this presenation, discovered that I also had connections with two of the residents, as well. One of the current fellows was an MCW resident. Nick Rowan, MD helped coordiante the session.

The residents had a Book Club the week before my presentation. They found three of the essays most compelling, including "Harbinger," an essay about the excitement of a first medical experience and how it impacted an early moment in a personal relationship. I also read "Ending Your Career with Grace Means Letting Go of the Knife," whic is an essay about retirement. Great conversation.

Thanks to Chris Gourin, MD for being such a wonderful advocate for my book!

March 16, 2022 - Rush University Department of Surgery

I graduated from Rush Medical College in 1980, so this virtual visit was a bit of a homecoming. I found some old pictures and told some stories, warning people to nice to medical students because, you never know who might come back in thirty-five years and talk about you."

I called out the influence of Steven Economou, MD, a general surgeon who was also an accomplished artist. I also mentioned that I had won second place in an essay contest on, "Why the Medical Humanities are Important to Medical Education," my first foray into the topic back in 1977.

Here's a Rush photo of me standing over the shoulder of Ronald Weinstein, MD, the chair of Pathology and later pioneer in telepathology. Preparing the talk was a great opportunity to remember how influential many of the surgeons and other medical school teachers were in shaping my career.

March 22, 2022 - Medical College of Wisconsin Department of Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences

A presentation to the home team crowd. This was a tag-team talk with fellow MCW book author, K. Jane Lee, MD. She talked about the process of writing her amazing book, Catastrophic Rupture: A Memoir of Healing. We had read sections of each other's work as we were moving toward publication, and it was a delight to share a reading, compare notes, and discuss what we had learned along thw way. We talked to our residents and faculty about the process of writing and how helpful it can be to read and reflect.

March 30, 2022 - Medical College of Wisconsin Department of Surgery

I have been fortunate to work with the general surgeons and surgical specialists at MCW for four decades. My session shared some of that admiration both for their work and for many of them, both current and past. The photo shows a Surgical Grand Rounds presentation, likely from the early 1990s with one of the residents being quizzed by Robert Condon, MD the department chair.

My talk focused on the benefit of including the humanities and reflection for students and residents rotating through surgical rotations. One study showed that 90% of third-year medical students on surgical services were "stressed" or "very stressed," and they found that reflective sessions were very helpful.

April 5, 2022 - Theological Ethics in Helathcare - Mount Mary University - Milwaukee

I was invited to spend time in Professor Shawnee Daniels-Sykes' class at Mount Mary University, speaking in conversation with Sister Shawnee and

her undergraduate students about the book. The students had each been assigned one of the essays in the book to read and be able to summarize. They each had to come up with a question to ask me. The questions were wonderful, ranging from wondering about my own faith to what medical school is like to dealing with dying patients.

Also attending the class was Mary Fran Otterson, MD, an MCW colleague, colorectal surgeon, Mount Mary alumna, and friend of Professor Daniels-Sykes. Having her in the class to provide perspective as a woman, an alumna, and a surgeon was wonderful.

Friday, February 8, 2022 - Creighton University Department of Surgery - Omaha, NE

My long-time head & neck colleague and friend, William Lydiatt, MD, invited me to come to Omaha to speak to his colleagues where I was honored to be the Albano Distinguished Visiting Professor. I gave a book reading and talked about Narrative Medicine. In addition, we had a writing workshop with about forty residents, faculty, and medical students, doing close readings of "Girl," by Jamaica Kinkaid and "Midsummer Rain," by Ted Kooser.

The group was very welcoming and the writing experience excellent. The residents appeared to really work at the opportunity to reflect. I was impressed by what they shared.

The afternoon session, the Dan Lydiatt, MD Symposium on Cost-Effective Care in Head and Neck Cancer, was headlined by Chris Holsinger, MD from Stanford University. Below are some photos from the day.

Thanks to all of the groups who have invited me to share my book, my experiences, and my thoughs about the value of reflection and narrative in a surgical life.

Here's looking forward to more conversations.

#AFullnessOfUncertainSignificance #AFoUSBook #NarrativeMedicine #NarrativeSurgery


Upcoming Events

  • Narrative Surgery - A Conversation at Creighton University
    Fri, Apr 08
    Creighton University Medical Center
    Apr 08, 7:30 AM – 2:30 PM CDT
    Creighton University Medical Center, 2420 Cuming St, Omaha, NE 68131, USA
    An opportunity to discuss narrative medicine, reflection, and head & neck surgery
  • Narrative Surgery - A Conversation at Johns Hopkins University
    Mar 14, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM CDT
    A conversation about narrative, the book, and retiring with grace.
  • 2021 MCW Medical Humanities Lecture
    Nov 16, 2021, 12:00 AM – 1:00 PM
    Dr. Campbell will give the 2021 annual MCW Medical Humanities Lecture at noon on Tuesday 11/16/2021.

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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