There were no doctors in my family. We had businessmen, lawyers, accountants, teachers – no doctors. I had not ever even considered being a doctor. While in high school, I developed an avid interest in psychology which I pursued on my own, as well as academically, continuing on well into my college years as well. For a while, most of my potential career choices seemed to be heading along those lines. But then somehow, magically, I got bitten by the “Medicine” bug and knew that this was what I wanted to do; what I needed to do, with my life. It’s certainly not a big jump from a love of psychology to a love of biology, but medicine beckoned me with an enticing mix of a little bit of everything…and so much more. My goal of becoming a physician became the driving force of my days. College turned into medical school. Then, for what seemed like forever at one time, but which now seems merely a blink, I graduated from medical school and began my very traditional five year general surgical residency.
Why Surgery? I had grown to recognize that I was more attracted to the philosophies and styles of the surgical specialties. I felt that my personality, thought process and skills as a physician seemed more suited toward the “surgical” rather than the “medical” fields. Ideally, surgery would be overall more satisfying to me and as a result, for my patients, too. Even as a medical student, my surgical rotation was filled with many sleepless nights, 14 hour days, and more reading than any human being could handle. And I had never been happier in my entire life. Definitely, people skills and a psychology background could only be of benefit here. But at this point for me, more of a background benefit than a foreground one.
Years passed and so did hundreds of trauma surgeries, ruptured aortic aneurysms, bowel resections, cancer surgeries, Surgical ICU patients, adults, children, minor surgeries, major surgeries, outpatient, inpatient, simple, complex, happy outcomes, sad outcomes, family dramas and, unfortunately, even deaths.
I began to envision what type of surgeon I might become. I had seen much, learned much and experienced much. I knew I had so much more to learn. Maybe, even more about myself. I thought about families and patients and what they felt and what I felt when it came down to the point where a life was in the balance and sometimes, that life was lost. The length of a person’s life could always seem to have been cruelly short, especially in the case of a child. But most people realize eventually that the kind of life lived, the way it is lived, and how that life and love is shared with others far exceeds in importance the number of years to that life. At the scrub sink one day, our division head of plastic surgery commented to me that Plastic Surgery “may not add years to a life, but it is supposed to add life to the years”. It was then that I suddenly recalled a book I had read when I was eighteen, written by psychiatrist Dr. Herbert R. Lazarus. Dr. Lazarus described how upset his father became when he informed him about his decision to become a psychiatrist rather than a “real doctor”. What a waste of all that time, money, training and schooling – his father was openly and deeply disappointed. Dr. Lazarus was hurt but had no answer which would satisfy his father, and many others critical of his decision, at the time. Years later, he would be able to explain that his decision was the result of realizing that he felt a different calling. That he felt that it was more important for him as a physician to help people, to truly help people, by helping them to live better, more fulfilling and more rewarding lives than to just help them live longer or disease/illness free. Even today, although better than years ago, Psychiatry and the importance of mental health and well-being is still not held in the regard it should be – by physicians or the public. Yet, no matter what we do as doctors, in the end everything comes down to quality of life – where does the determination of that reside? It is in our minds and in our hearts.
The words of Dr. Lazarus had been smoldering in me all those years, waiting to be heard and answered by my conscience. What did I really believe? What kind of doctor did I want to be? I knew in my heart that I believed what Dr. Lazarus had said. It became very clear to me that as a plastic surgeon, a substantial part of what I would do as a physician would be to try to help improve the quality and joy of someone’s days. Not just their special days, but their everyday’s. The days that all add up one day to the story that is a life. Hopefully, a life which is that much sweeter, that much more enjoyable, and that much more of a pleasure, because of something I was able to do for that person. I completed my general surgery residency, obtained my board certification, and then continued on in my training in a wonderful plastic surgery residency. Now, some 35 years later, I can honestly say that becoming a plastic surgeon was the fulfillment for me of becoming just the kind of a physician I hoped that I could one day be. If I’m very lucky, I will continue to earn and deserve to be given the incredible honor and responsibility to make the kind of a difference for someone that makes life just a little better. Thank you, Dr. Lazarus. The book is called “How To Get Your Money’s Worth Out of Psychiatry” (Sherbourne Press, 1973).
Dr. Lyle Back is originally from New York City, receiving his medical and surgical training at Rutgers Medical School, Cooper Hospital – University Medical Center, and Ohio State. He is Board Certified in General Surgery (ABS) and Plastic Surgery (ABPS). He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery (AACS), and a longstanding member of the premier American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). He served as a Professor of Plastic Surgery at Temple University and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and performed reconstructive surgery with “Operation Smile” in Vietnam. He specializes in the full range of the most modern and state of the art facial cosmetic surgery procedures and non-surgical cosmetic enhancement techniques available today.