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Support the MCW Campbell Family Narrative Medicine Fund

In recognition of my retirement, Kathi and I set up a fund supporting Medical College of Wisconsin faculty, staff, and students who want to become Narrative Medicine champions. Our goal is that every patient will be listened to and cared for by physicians who take care of themselves.

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Bruce Campbell MD - Author

A Fullness of

Uncertain Significance:

Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace


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  • Writer's pictureBruce Campbell MD

Those who suffer illness learn by hearing themselves tell their stories, absorbing others’ reactions, and experiencing their stories being shared.

- Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller

We stand together at the clinic room door, preparing to enter. “Tongue cancer. This is an 78-year-old man with an oral cavity mass and some memory loss. He had an ulcer on the side of his tongue for a few weeks which was biopsied by an outside doctor. No imaging yet. The lesion is tender. His wife died several years ago. He’s in there with his daughters.”

I nod at the resident. He is solid and introspective. I look at Tanya, the medical student, who is standing in our little circle of white coats. “Any other details I should know about him?” I ask.

“Not really,” she responds. “He’s very quiet and lets his daughters answer for him. He is aware of his memory problems and knows that he needs surgery. He’s pretty healthy.”

“Okay,” I say. I knock and open the door. My new patient sits in the exam chair. His two daughters smile when I walk in; one has a notepad in her lap. We all shake hands.

“I’m Doctor Campbell. You’ve already met Dr. Richardson and our student, Tanya, right?”

“Yes,” they acknowledge.

The resident and the student are attentive. The resident sits at the computer, ready to work on the Epic note that will tell the billing system what we have accomplished. Tanya stands near the daughters. Everyone leans in.

As I often do, I open with, “Let’s jump to the end. So, from what Dr. Richardson has told me, you have a very early cancer. Stage I – the earliest we see. You will need surgery, but you have an excellent chance of being completely cured of this with surgery alone. Depending on what the pathologist tells us, you probably will not need radiation or chemotherapy.”

The patient smiles weakly and looks at his girls, possibly seeking reassurance. "That's good news, Dad!" His daughters are clearly happy to hear this.

This is where I usually review the medical history and then wash my hands to begin the examination. However, I want to know a bit more about what he has heard and processed. In addition, I have two trainees in the room who might benefit from seeing how personal stories can interweave with illness.

I sit before him. “Where did you grow up? What did you do before retirement?” I ask him.

He tells me that he grew up a few blocks from where he lives now. He never moved away. “I worked in a factory in my home town. Before I retired, I worked in sales for a while." I note that he tells the story without enthusiasm. His daughters confirm his story. Well, I think, his long-term memory is intact. 

"Here's another question," I say. “What kinds of things did you do for fun?” 

At this, he lights up. “I loved horseshoes!” he says as the girls nod. "You know horseshoes? I had 18 ringers in a row one time! Can you imagine that? 13 another! You have to know how to throw the shoe!” He partially stands, bracing himself on the chair and letting his right arm swing free. With a gnarled hand, he demonstrates his technique in slow motion. “You grip the top of the shoe like this…” he pretends to be holding a horseshoe… “and bring your arm up like this. Here's the twist so that the shoe leaves your hand flat. It makes one rotation in the air before it reaches the stake. Then, plonk! It drops down and you score! Then you do it over-and-over.”

“Are you still competing?” I ask.

“Nah," he responds. "Not for a few years.” The room goes silent.

“Dad, tell him about being in the state tournament.”

"Oh, yeah!" He lights up again as he describes some of his adventures. The worrisomely quiet man has become irrepressible. The key to him was horseshoes.

We go on to schedule his surgery. A discussion that might have been anxiety-provoking is easy and collaborative. The daughters ask excellent questions and the patient listens. He asks how soon we can operate. Soon, we are shaking hands again and they are on their way.

“What did you learn?” I ask Tanya. 

“That was really interesting,” she says. “Now I know more about managing tongue cancer.”

“But,” I ask, “do you know more about horseshoes?”

She laughs. “I sure do,” she says. “That was amazing. He really seemed to enjoy talking about his story.”

And so he did. By drawing out his narrative and putting his cancer in the larger context of his life, his passion had driven the conversation. It took only a couple of questions for him to go from hesitant to animated; from being a man with a memory problem to being a former state-level athlete; from being identified as a tongue cancer to being a person with tongue cancer.

The approach satisfied me, lifting me for the rest of the day. I felt renewed.

#cancer #aging

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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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