engin-akyurt-BvWPWDv4Ob0-unsplash.jpg
Bruce Campbell MD

A Fullness of

Uncertain Significance:

Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace

BRUCE H CAMPBELL, MD FACS

A Fullness of Uncertain Significance_2D
 
Search
  • Bruce Campbell MD

You don’t build a bond without being present.

- James Earl Jones



“Will you follow me even after my cancer surgery?” the patient asks.


"I will continue to see you for as long as you are willing to return," I respond.


“Can we call you when we have questions?” the daughter asks.


"Of course," I answer.


“Why did she get cancer?" her husband wants to know.


"I don't know, but I will help you do what we can to keep it from returning." Soon, we are deep into a difficult discussion.



Tough questions keep physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and all healthcare providers busy. In order to evaluate and treat diseases, the demands of 21st century medicine require staying current with an unmanageable onslaught of clinical and basic science research studies. Office and hospital time is filled with performing procedures, keeping current on charting, and fulfilling administrative duties. The “softer” side of medicine — taking time to talk, provide explanations, and offering hope — takes a backseat if we view our main mission as providing intricate treatments for complex diseases. We see our work as an endless steam of tasks on a to-do list. We are soon sucked into the maelstrom.


In an earlier time, Lewis Thomas, MD — gifted physician, researcher, administrator, and essayist — described the primary tasks of a physician as they were viewed at the time of his father' medical school graduation in 1911:


“First of all, the physician was expected to walk in and take over; he became responsible for the outcome whether he could affect it or not. Second, it was assumed that he would stand by, on call, until it was over. Third, and this was probably the most important of his duties, he would explain what had happened and what was likely to happen.”


And how were physicians equipped to accomplish these tasks? Dr. Thomas amplified:

“The first two [taking over and standing by] needed a mixture of intense curiosity about people in general and an inborn capacity for affection, hard to come by but indispensable for a good doctor. The third, the art of prediction, needed education and was the sole contribution of the medical school.”


Thomas found medicine to be much the same when he started medical school in 1933. The good physician was known by these traits: Being accountable, being present, and making honest, informed predictions on behalf of patients.


These traits resonate today, don't they? In some ways, it feels as though it is harder than ever to keep our eyes on these simple goals of every patient interaction. These themes continue to resonate in the writings of thoughtful physician-authors such as Atul Gawande, Abraham Verghese, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Louise Aronson. We try to teach and model them to our students and residents every day.


Interestingly, despite the revolution in health care and explosion of information, these three tasks remain vital components of our profession.


Just like in Dr. Thomas' time, we will never know the answers to every question, of course. But I have never regretted being accountable, present, and honest.


_______

From Thomas L, The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

 

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
    Share
  • Narrative Surgery - A Conversation at Johns Hopkins University
    Mar 14, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM CDT
    ONLINE
    A conversation about narrative, the book, and retiring with grace.
    Share
  • 2021 MCW Medical Humanities Lecture
    Nov 16, 2021, 12:00 AM – 1:00 PM
    TBD
    Dr. Campbell will give the 2021 annual MCW Medical Humanities Lecture at noon on Tuesday 11/16/2021.
    Share
 
 

Stay Up to Date

Want to receive a notification when a new essay is posted? Please use the form below to sign up for email updates!

Thanks for submitting!

Untitled.jpg
engin-akyurt-BvWPWDv4Ob0-unsplash.jpg

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