The Surgical Marriage

Why becoming a successful surgeon requires the same grit and dedication expected from a married couple, negotiating complexities of love and loss

“Neurosurgery should be your first wife, not your mistress,” a patriarch old-timer neurosurgeon was famous for telling all married resident doctors interviewing for a post-graduate training seat in the specialty. “And if you’re not married,” he used to caution, “it’s better to stay that way. It’s very hard for a relationship to blossom in the stressful environment of a residency program.” Those who interviewed for the post pretended to accede to his suggestion, although most married as soon as they got into the course – with varying outcomes, of course.

A vocation does need the exact kind of commitment one seeks from a marriage. You have to be imbued with grit and gumption. Our vocations (not professions) give us purity of desire and unity of purpose. “If you really want to make a wise vocation decision,” writes David Brooks, “you have to lead the kind of life that keeps your heart and soul awake every day.” In my opinion, this also applies to the decision of marriage. What you do for a living and whom you decide to marry would probably be the most important decisions of one’s life. But these too are not set in stone. You can course correct anytime. I know of doctors who have switched to politics, engineers who’ve turned actors, businessmen who’ve become monks and monks who’ve become millionaires.

A vocation, like a marriage, is a cure for self-centeredness. You are devoting yourself to a cause that’s greater than you. You tend to see how your patient or partner will benefit from you, rather than the other way around. And mastery in both requires that you do the same thing again and again, with the belief that it gets better and better. Like the big man Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

Passion is the key element in both a vocation and marriage. When we were kids, every aspect of my life had a surgical correlation, as my dad, a surgeon himself, was so passionate about the vocation. “You have to learn to eat with a fork and knife,” he badgered us at every meal. “How else will you lean to be a good surgeon?” He taught me to use both hands simultaneously for everything. Often, food items on the dinner table were linked to tumours and other malformations we could correlate surgical pathologies with.

I later deciphered for myself that the art of diagnosis in medicine also lends itself to marriage. You look at a tumour on an MRI the same way you look at a potential life partner. Is it smooth at the edges or jagged? What does it do to the structures around it – just push them a little or encase them completely? Does it seem aggressive or peaceful? But most importantly, you ask, what does the core look like – is it solid or mushy? Is the tumour telling you the truth about itself and are you able to understand where it comes from? What feeds its soul?

You then understand and assess your own ability to handle such a case. Is this something you can operate on or need to refer to someone with greater experience, skill, and insight? Because while in most cases perception matches reality, on occasion, you can be surprised. What you think is benign sometimes turns out to be malignant, what sometimes seems ghoulish turns out to sweet and simple, or, like my kids would say, easy-peasy.

Often, you struggle through the entire operation but in the end, that struggle seems worth it. Rarely do you get into a tumour and very quickly realize it’s best to back out. Usually, you follow the middle path, and even if it’s hard, you keep at it. You work on it piece by piece wondering where it’s going to take you. You’re scared of injuring the wrong nerve or buzzing the wrong artery. If you want to give up somewhere in between, your assistant will goad you, the anaesthetist will encourage and egg you on some more, but after giving it all you’ve got, you realize that’s its best for both you and the patient to stop at this stage to avoid any further damage. Your patient came in smiling; you want to ensure they go back the same way.

Because, at surgery, just like in a marriage, you don’t want to have a complication you can’t get out of. “A failure”, says Atul Gawande “does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it. Will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right? Because the difference between triumph and defeat you’ll find isn’t about willingness to take risks, it’s about mastery of rescue.” The best doctors and hospitals don’t fail less, they rescue more. In my opinion, the same logic applies to marriages. We all need the ability to face complexity and uncertainty. Which means we all fail.

Primum no nocere is the Latin phrase that means, “First, do no harm.” In some variation, it is part of the Hippocratic oath that medical students take when becoming doctors. More than “Till death do us part,” I think, “First, do no harm” is a befitting marriage vow.

“We did the small things right,” said a famous team of surgeons after separating a pair of twins, conjoint at the head, over several staged surgeries, each lasting 24 hours. I believe these are the exact words most couples in long and joyous marriages use.

However intrinsically beautiful an operation is or how nightmarish it eventually turns out to be, whether you get into it with faith or fear, whether you come out of it smilingly or scathed, whether you end up hurting or healing, a few hours of complex surgery is like the years one spends in a marriage. After all, blood is involved – sometimes someone else’s, sometimes your own.

20 Comments on “The Surgical Marriage
  • Dr. Neepa says:

    I like the comparison you made…dealing with neurosurgery and marriage..
    Both need dedication, both have their own challenges and benefits…
    Very well written…

    Reply
  • Priyadarshan Pradhan says:

    Wonderfully put doctor saheb

    Reply
  • Dr Indu Bansal says:

    The beauty of your writing is that u bring words to life. U make things look so simple. It’s like a video playing in front of your eyes. It’s a treat everytime to read what u bring to the table.

    Reply
  • Supriya Correa says:

    Where are you, Mrs Turel? You need to have the last word on this!!

    Reply
  • Vipul Shah says:

    Dear Dr Mazda

    Very good Subject you selected……….

    Very nicely integrated Piece Marraige with Medical
    You can write on any Subject with great ease…….

    Keep on writing on variety of Topics …..

    God bless…

    Reply
  • gurudutt Satyendranath bhat says:

    Sometimes blood is involved…lololol

    Reply
  • Burzin Panthaki says:

    What a lovely piece.
    Keep on writing doc you are an artist
    God bless

    Reply
  • Leah G. says:

    Dear Dr Mazda,

    Thank you for yet another beautiful piece of artwork! Your ability to simplify complex concepts through comparison with everyday situations is peerless, Dr Mazda the wordsmith!

    May you continue to grow from strength to strength!

    Reply
  • Anita says:

    Probably a piece de resistance of your all your writings . You are a brilliant doctor and. A great humn being which is so evident from your writings. Live the in-depth analogy and a ‘ cure for self-centeredness’ . More power to you Doc 👍

    Reply
  • Dinesh Shikotra says:

    Dear Dr Mazda, so beautifully narrated with marriage. I have become a fan of yr writings. God has gifted you with magic in yr great hands to use surgical instruments as well as a pen to jot your thoughts into words. You make it all sound so easy and positive. May God continue showering his Divine Grace on You 😘👍

    Reply
  • Deepak Samson says:

    Wow, Mazda, well written mate!!

    Reply
  • Dr.Satish Dhamankar says:

    Excellent article and beautiful analogy between surgery and marriage and also surgeon and husband.
    Both have to have time, trust and technique to come out victorious

    Reply
  • Vispi mistry says:

    Brilliantly written piece Mazda,so succinctly and with clarity comparing a successful marriage to surgery, one exception though as you we rote in surgery if u felt you couldn’t handle it you can back.but in a marriage it’s not that simple. Keep writing you genius.

    Reply
  • Rita Singh says:

    Avery one who needs a neuro treatment is really Lucky to have u as their doctor.So is ur wife to have u as her husband.An unique comparison but very apt.

    Reply
  • Vineeta Rao says:

    True ,both are intricate,mysterious and need passion,commitment,faith for success. Amazing how you weave in neurosurgery into your philosophy of life to make this beautiful tapestry!

    Reply
  • Zarine Pastakia says:

    Love and marriage… sang Sinatra… love and marriage
    Go together… doo di doo da.. like a horse and carriage
    Or as declared a neurosurgeon wise n old
    A neurosurgeon and neurosurgery. .his wife of gold!
    This does Mazda tell each sister and brother
    You can’t have one without the other

    A vocation, a calling demands dedication grit n gumption
    And meticulous Mazda makes no mean assumption
    A vocation laced with passion soul-soaring
    Equal to a marriage with united purpose roaring!

    A vocation and marriage, a vocation and marriage
    Both be remedies for self-centred conduct and carriage
    I me myself – we’d best forget it !
    You your yourself – help the other benefit !
    Repeat action ad nauseam till it gets better n better
    Till you are healed and released from each selfish fetter

    O Mazda! You did wield well your knife and fork
    Today you amaze us, wondrous Wielder of surgical knife and metaphor(k)
    Memories cachinatingly (😉) bubbled to the surface of my brain
    Of my dad’s fork n knife tutoring – sans tumour-food refrain!

    The Gaze.. upon a tumour in the MRI or potential life partner
    Mazda mesmerises with his analogy i must aver
    How skillful his ways – lyrical or surgical n queasy
    All rendered to us lucidly fluidly – ever so easy – peasy ! (Hiiii kids💖💖!!)

    O Mazda! You are the Wind beneath our wings, ’tis true
    Your goodreads n good deeds uplift n inspire – we’re indebted to you
    Much strength n serenity to thee .. may thy tribe increase!
    And we .. may we absorb your sunshine with ad infinitum ease-pease !! (Byeeee kids💖💖!!)

    PS !!!!!
    And after last Sunday’s video for Jiyo Parsi
    May we discern with immense sense and sagacity
    The difference supreme between neurosurgeon and chiropractor
    Lest we reduce our benefactor to Dr Mazda Maalishwala Manipulator!

    Reply
  • Germaine-Daisy Boatwala says:

    I guess the passion of your vocation was amply displayed in the various ways you attempted to explain it through analogies with a successful marriage. You obviously love what you do! It also requires, in the case of your profession, strong eyesight, clear mind, strength of character and moral responsibility. In the age of fake news and viral fearmongering, it is evident that many in the medical profession may have forgotten moral over fiscal passions. I pray to God that they awaken! 🙏
    As a teacher by vocation, I admire the passion involved in teaching medical students not just medicine but passion, the passion to heal, and “do no harm. ” May that always help to create compassionate doctors.
    I would only add that marriage requires romance too😁. It’s not just chocolate and flowers but the commitment, unconditional love, understanding and doing something new and wonderful every now and then. Hopefully its flavour is found on the operating table as well as the doctor’s home!

    Reply
  • Germaine-Daisy Boatwala-Sidhva says:

    I guess the passion of your vocation was amply displayed in the various ways you attempted to explain it through analogies with a successful marriage. You obviously love what you do! It also requires, in the case of your profession, strong eyesight, clear mind, strength of character and moral responsibility. In the age of fake news and viral fearmongering, it is evident that many in the medical profession may have forgotten moral over fiscal passions. I pray to God that they awaken! 🙏
    As a teacher by vocation, I admire the passion involved in teaching medical students not just medicine but passion, the passion to heal, and “do no harm. ” May that always help to create compassionate doctors.
    I would only add that marriage requires romance too😁. It’s not just chocolate and flowers but the commitment, unconditional love, understanding and doing something new and wonderful every now and then. Hopefully its flavour is found on the operating table as well as the doctor’s home!

    Reply
  • Mercy Rachel George says:

    Beautiful writing, Mazda . Keep going !

    Reply
  • Di says:

    Another excellent article!! Beautifully written about vocation and marriage… loved reading “cure for self-centeredness”, “we are what we repeatedly do” and “first, do no harm”… all of which are so true… keep up the great writing!

    Reply

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