The Surgical Perks

It took a terrible, almost incurable, back spasm for this surgeon to develop a more profound understanding of someone else’s pain

“Ouch!” I said to myself after completing an 8-hour operation to fix someone’s degenerated spine, gingerly releasing the velcro off the 5-kg lead apron I was wearing underneath my surgical gown. Spine surgeons often wear lead to minimise the effects of radiation from the X-ray machine used to take multiple shoots and ensure the perfect placement of our implants. Often, the positions in which we stand are awkward and ergonomically challenging and can unpredictably strain the back like it did for me, for the first time in my career.

I limped towards the surgeons’ room and slid into a chair to grab a coffee, which is what most unhealthy surgeons do after they finish an operation. I wriggled my toes inside my crocs and flapped my ankles up and down to ensure my nerves were not affected, and then got up crunching my teeth and walked robotically out of the operation theatre complex as if nothing had happened. I spoke to the family, catching my breath while saying that everything had gone off well. “Are you okay, doc?” the wife of the patient asked, noticing that something was amiss. “I think I just sprained my back a bit,” I gesticulated. “Please take care, and thank you for everything,” she said, as I prophetically waved goodbye, taking the elevator up to my office instead of the customary stairs I’m so familiar with.

I rummaged through my drawers and found an expired pain killer that I popped, continuing to see the few patients that were scheduled for the remainder of my day. I bought myself a strip of fresh meds as I left for the day. “What happened, dada? Why are you walking like an old man?” my kids questioned as soon as I entered the house. “I just hurt my back a little. It’ll be ok if you press it for me.” So, armed with an ice pack and some Volini, they rubbed my back up and down. When I awoke the next morning, I felt a little better and got ready to go to work. “Shouldn’t you be resting?” my wife cautioned, to which she got a “Nah!” I preferred to believe that my patients wouldn’t survive if I wasn’t around. This, precisely, is the pretentious God complex that the common man knows the surgeon to harbour.

I continued with the scheduled cases for the day, making sure I wore the lightest lead apron that was available. I bullishly wrote my name on it with a permeant marker even though it was the property of the hospital. While I was operating, I had no pain at all, but the moment I finished, it was as if someone was wringing my back muscles dry from the inside. Surgery had provided the adrenaline needed to mask the pain, but the relief was short-lived. I wondered why the medication I usually prescribed to my patients wasn’t working on me. I got an MRI done between cases and was relieved to find it clean. There was no herniated disc, no infection, no swelling. But everyone noticed I was walking leaning to one side. It was ironic that I wasn’t able to cure a condition in me that I treated daily.

The next 5 days went on as usual: surgery in the mornings and outpatient clinics in the evenings, and between the two I would get the physiotherapist to work their magic on me. I thought I was getting better until one evening, when, after seeing my last patient, I sneezed uproariously. Twice. And then it was all over. It was as if someone had burst a bomb in my bum and fired bullets up and down my back simultaneously. Poets and authors have written about pain for centuries, but I have yet to come across an accurate description of exactly what I felt that evening. I could not put my left foot on the floor, and after lying down for an hour and taking an intramuscular injection in the arm, I got two people to place me into my car and drove home sitting on half a butt cheek. I couldn’t get out of bed for the next few days. My bed, which was the cosiest place on the planet until a few days ago, seemed like a buttress of nails.

Each night I stared at my ceiling. The first thing I noticed was that it needed some cleaning. But after that, I began thinking about all the patients with back pain who had come to me, whom I had brushed off, telling them they didn’t need surgery, asking them to take some medication and do some physiotherapy. I had treated them almost with some amount of disdain for not having a surgical cause that I could fix. I used to pride myself in being a patient, all-encompassing doctor, but part of it was fallacious; I didn’t really attempt to understand the root cause of someone’s pain.

Kahlil Gibran said, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding … Much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore, trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility.” Which I did, and overmedicated myself in the bargain. That led me to wrench and vomit, infinitesimally worsening whatever was getting better.

“Why don’t you eat some khichdi, beta,” suggested an aunty after hearing about my predicament. “You need a bonesetter,” a cousin proclaimed, “because these guys know exactly where to kick you and it’ll be fixed in a second, you doctors know nothing!” I couldn’t agree more with him. My house help recommended that she knew someone who was born breach and if that person walked on my walk, it would be cured – but it would work only if I had faith in such a therapy. A spiritual person told me that my ‘kundalini’ was stuck while rising and needed to be released. After all, everything in today’s age is energy, frequency, and vibration. The physiotherapist said it was a locked facet. The pain specialist decreed it was nerve impingement and stuck in a bunch of needles to stabilize spasming muscles.

With time, whatever it was substantially mitigated over the week. After sitting on a hot water bag for a few days, I resumed work with a more profound understanding of someone else’s pain; as Ursula Guin once said, “It is our suffering that brings us together.”

This article first appeared in the Sunday Mid-Day on 20th March 2022

23 Comments on “The Surgical Perks
  • Supriya Correa says:

    You are already so empathic without needing to go through pain. Very glad that you recovered.

  • Delphi Wadia says:

    I love the way you write…. Ur description is brilliant. Could almost feel ur pain and couldn’t stop smiling as well
    hope ur better now. We need more doctors like you around

  • Ralecha Mmatli Botswana 🇧🇼 says:

    Oh now I understand where your passion for your patients comes from- you are at one with them. You know exactly what and how they feel. May God continue to keep you for us my good Dr.

  • Clera Menezes says:

    Sir you have Beautifully narrated your life experience in this artical .When i used to see you in operation theatre with your odd posture i used to think of myself being and spine surgeon he could not take care of his own back and how will he be advising to his patient for better posture .I should really appreciate your dedication and sincerity to your profession even you were not in a condition to stand and operate .
    A big Salute to you for dedication and love for your patients .
    You have well said we don’t understand others pain unless we being in their shoes.

  • Rita singh says:

    I am so sorry u suffered so much. But it is true suffering makes us a better person, a person with more understanding and compassion. Reading this article I almost started feeling similar pain.

  • Constance Matabiswana says:

    So sorry Doc. For a minute you must have felt your youth leaving your body. Please get well soon. Your theatre list continues to grow everyday.

  • Mahasweta Biswas says:

    Wow Mazda, you have narrated your own experience with back pain in a nutshell. Reading it I could gauge the pain you are going through. Kudos to you for having carrying on working with this pain. Take care. Speedy recovery

  • Marzin R Shroff says:

    Hope you feel better soon, Doc. So many people rely on you. Will send you positive healing and you’ll be fine and back in action soonest

  • George Koshy says:

    Wow.written from the heart

  • Gloria Msampha says:

    God wanted you to “fully” understand the pain your patients go through so that you can treat them better. Sorry you had to go through the pain. But glad you are back to normal. Take care.

  • Aspi Dubash says:

    You have narrated about your pain but no remedy or cure


    Please stay well and happy. A Doc like you feels like a hug from God 🙏

  • Laina says:

    Take care doc ! I am glad you recovered!

  • Homi R Cooper says:

    Dr. Mazda so Noble & Humble of you to Share ur Pain with the World. Thru this Process God has molded u to be a Learned as well Experienced NeuroSurgeon!

    Now that it is behind u so may u continue to perform Life Changing Procedures on ur Patients.

    TY for Sharing your Experiences as they r v Inspiring for all of us.

    Thank u once again Dr.

  • Dr Naresh Jani says:

    उत्कृष्ट साहित्य कथा के साथ-साथ अद्भुत सर्जन

  • Poonam Nowzadick says:

    I was really impressed by the way u wrote yr article Doctor.Hope u r feeling better by the grace of god.Have a good recovery..take care n stay safe🙏 keep it up..god blessed u

  • Dr. Sangeeta C says:

    Very well put through Dr. Turel. I am anaesthesiologist who witnessed exactly same thing happening with my neurosurgeon husband post spine fixation surgery. It was altogether different experience for us. Many complaints of patients seem so irrelevant but as you rightly said you can understand it better when you go through same situation. Good to know you are doing well. I am great fan of your writing and share your articles with my colleagues also. Keep up good work.

  • Anjali Patki says:

    Great narrative, laced with subtle humour, yet bringing forth the fact that we are all human. No gain without pain doc.Take care and keep up the good writeups

  • Dr Jawahar Mukhtyar says:

    Brilliant prose as ever!

  • Chandan sanjana says:

    Bone setter, someone born breached to walk on you, Accupuncture, the body screams for relief at any cost. Any pain becomes nerve wracking and difficult to bear. Glad that you are feeling better and it was more muscle and no major problem. But now you will sympathise even more with your patients when they whine with pain as you have personally gone through that pain trauma yourself.
    As usual a wonderfully written article.🙏

  • Germaine Boatwala -Sidhva says:

    I like the lens you used to view your pain! The causes were all of the above and none in particular. Though, it is a known fact that the physical always has a spiritual cause. Karma is not always punishment; it is rather re-balancing one’s energy account. Perhaps you partly hit on it when you thought of your disdainful dismissal of some patients. Karma is not always about intended wrong. But also balancing unintentional pain and acts of kind violence (a just oxymoron)! Hope your back is in good nick now! Self-analysis will prevent the cause and effect of such issues and you won’t have to back out (pun intended) of these ruptures. I loved your self analysis. It didn’t spare your self. Which is where it is meant to be for all forms of healing. Thank you, for another charming write-up, doctor! 👍

  • Rajesh Rasiklal Parikh says:

    Glad that you are fine now
    Can not think of you lying down!!!!

  • Dr Yogeeta says:

    Glad to know you are back to normal ,very well said ..when we ourself suffer with some kind of pain ..we understand it better !!!


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