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Bruce Campbell MD

A Fullness of

Uncertain Significance:

Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace


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  • Bruce Campbell MD

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

-Annie Dillard

My grandchildren will never know the sound of a busy signal. It’s true. The Modern Era has brought many miracles to our lives including telephones that are always answered. When I get a busy signal these days, I re-dial, thinking there must have been some kind of systems error.

Occasionally, a living human being answers my call. That occurrence is unexpected, though.

The third alternative is the most common.

I dial. After two rings, a pre-recorded voice greets me. If I am standing, I sit. If I am sitting, I lean back. If I am leaning back, well, you get the picture.

“Hello. And thank you for calling Dr. Bob’s office.”

This phrase is fine. It's reassuring to know I reached the correct number. Whenever I visit Dr. Bob’s office, I have a good experience. I really like Dr. Bob and his staff. Having the recording offer thanks for my call is courteous but not necessary. Knowing how kind Dr. Bob is, I find the message charming.

"Our regular business hours are 8:00 to 4:30 Monday through Friday."

This is useful information, but only if I had been calling Dr. Bob to find out when there is someone available to answer the phone. Perhaps having this information as part of the recorded message could help me orient myself someday if I suddenly awaken from a deep sleep not knowing if it is day or night. “I’ll call Dr. Bob’s office to find out if it is daytime or not! If I hear the recording, it is probably dark outside.” There are, of course, more efficient ways to determine this. I check my watch. It is 10:00 a.m. Oh, no! Why doesn’t Dr. Bob answer? Is he hurt? Is everything all right?

"If you are hearing this message during our normal business hours, it just means we can’t get to the phone right now."

Thank God.

“Please be assured we will take your call in the order in which it was received.”

I like this phrase. An egalitarian approach to the seemingly trivial task of phone triage strikes me as a small moment of justice in an otherwise disordered world. If someone extremely important called immediately after I did – the President, perhaps, or maybe one of the Popes – I am delighted to know that Dr. Bob would take my call first. But, I think to myself, why do they take up precious time to tell me this? Is it really true? Might they be pre-screening the incoming phone numbers? Dr. Bob can see my name on the caller ID. He knows I am his patient. I half-expect a bored voice to click on the line and say, “Dr. Bob’s office. We know who you are. Please hold” and then click off again. I make a note to check later to see if Dr. Bob spent the morning taking care of Beyonce.

"Please stay on the line because our menu options have recently changed."

Now, I start getting restless. Is this message part of a nefarious plot to force me to sit in my chair for an extended period of time? Perhaps Dr. Bob is actually a front for a terrorist organization and he uses these messages to get targets to remain in one place long enough for an enemy sniper to train a high-powered rifle on the victim. Why else would Dr. Bob try to force me to listen to the entire menu when I heard this exact same message two years ago? What’s he up to? I creep along the wall and carefully close the blinds.

“If you know your party’s extension, you can enter it at any time.”

Why didn’t they say this in the beginning? And why does Dr. Bob call “people” parties? When did “people” and “parties” become interchangeable? Is that proper usage of the term? Are there broader societal implications?

“If this is a medical emergency, please hang up and dial 9-1-1."

I become alarmed. How stupid does Dr. Bob think I am? “Hey, Dr. Bob! I’m bleeding to death here!!! Got any quick advice??? Can you squeeze me in today and sew my arm back on??? Gawd, I hope you are taking these calls in the order they were received!!!” I am really starting to hate Dr. Bob.

“If you have a rotary phone, please stay on the line.”

Rotary phone??? Are they kidding? C’mon, Dr. Bob, who has a rotary phone anymore? Terrorists, perhaps? My kids have never even seen a rotary phone! And what if it’s an emergency? Am I supposed to both hang up AND dial 9-1-1 on my rotary phone while my arm is hanging from its socket? While I'm bleeding to death???

“Otherwise leave a message after the tone and we will get back to you at our earliest convenience...”

You will call me at YOUR earliest convenience?! That’s probably true, but is it wise to TELL ME THAT?! I CAN’T STAND YOU, DOCTOR BOB!!!

Pause – Pause – Pause – Pause – Pause – BEEP

I grip the phone, grit my teeth, and record my message but suspect that the reason for my call has long since healed, ruptured, or metastasized.

I hang up, shaken and exhausted. Tomorrow, I will call Dr. Bob and see if he can help me understand why I am so stressed and no longer have time to get anything accomplished.

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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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