Middle Kingdom Adventures: The First Cut is the Deepest

Creative Commons photo by ReSurge International, via Flickr

It seems that our fascination with the uncertainties of the human body creates the mystique surrounding surgery. The immediacy with which surgeons can help their patients augments this mystique. During my second week at Shanghai United Family Hospital (SHU), I experienced firsthand the ability of surgeons to make this experience exquisitely real while rotating through the surgical department. Compared with my experience with the OB/GYN department, my days were considerably less busy (apparently, OB/GYN departments in hospitals across the country are swamped because many Chinese couples are bent on the idea of having a “dragon baby” before Chinese New Year rolls around next February). However, a light surgical schedule allowed me to really see how SHU’s surgeons interacted with patients in their clinics.

Surgeons have a reputation of being brusque and arrogant. The three surgeons I had the privilege of shadowing did their part and then some to dispel that rumor. At SHU, surgeons act as primary care physicians in some cases, and their sense of humor and sensitivity to the concerns of their patients illustrated the irreplaceable dynamic between doctors and patients. Many of these cases were consultations—as one surgeon told me, “Sometimes, the hardest part is knowing when to operate.” They were equally attentive to me, ensuring that I fully understood each case and course of treatment.

Of course, I also had the opportunity to see a few different procedures during the week. When a patient was not responding to conservative treatment for cholelithiasis (gallstones), an emergency cholecystectomy, or gallbladder removal, was scheduled. It was my first time seeing a laparoscopic surgery, a minimally invasive process performed with tubelike instruments maneuvering through small incisions in the abdomen. I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the dexterity of the attending surgeon was absolutely captivating. The instruments he used seemed like natural extensions of his fingers.

During the two-and-half hour surgery, my eyes only left the screen to admire the choreographed movements of the surgical team. There’s nothing like an interactive anatomy lesson in the operating room. “See that?” The doctor pointed his dissector at a vessel. “That’s the cystic duct.” The easy banter between the surgeons and the nurses quickly halted when unexpected complications cropped up, but in the end, the patient pulled through. Seeing him the next day and hearing his profuse gratefulness for the alleviation of the pain that had become unbearable made me realize why surgery still fascinates all of us.

Yuying Luo ’12 (yuying@post.harvard.edu) is wrapping up her time in China this week. She is on the Alexander G. Booth ’30 Fellowship this summer in Beijing and Shanghai.