As a young, learning-disabled Black male growing up in the projects of inner-city New York, few thought I would ever amount to anything, let alone a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon performing life-saving surgeries in Liberia Africa. This career that I’m so proud of has not only improved the quality of life for thousands of my patients but also shaped me into a father my girls can be proud of.
Being a parent is life’s most precious responsibility, even more so than being a gifted surgeon, and I am continually learning from my patients how to be a better father in multiple areas—namely the three C’s: communication, compassion, and compromise.
Parents are famous for thinking they have all the answers and that children should just “do as I say.” This is a common theme with doctors and their patients, as well. However, as a surgeon, I should be doing more listening than talking. By opening up the lines of communication from the outset, my patients feel “heard” and are better equipped to be an active participant in their treatment and recovery. This is vital to ensuring the most optimal result.
Imagine living in a war-torn, famine-infested country and your beloved child suddenly collapses in the yard with your only option of care being a tribal shaman with a chicken bone. Yes, you read that correctly, a chicken bone. This is the reality in Liberia, Africa.
As I stood holding a gravely ill 4-year old’s hand in a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, her mother began to explain that six months ago, she was running and playing kick the can with her brothers when she felt a pop and pain in her thigh. They took her to see the tribal doctor, who then broke a chicken’s leg and told the family that when the chicken leg healed, then hers would as well. Not surprisingly, when she returned, the chicken leg had not healed and neither had her daughter’s. The tribal doctor had told them this was a bad omen and they needed to go to Monrovia for care.
This seems like a fairly simple directive for those of us fortunate to be born in The United States, but to those living in a third-world country, transportation is a luxury afforded to scant few. Nothing in life is stronger and more determined than a parent’s love for their child, so her family walked and hitchhiked over the course of 3 days to get her to the hospital.
Sadly, she had become lethargic and listless by the time they arrived, and there was a very real fear that she would not survive much longer. I looked at her with grave concern and in that moment, saw my own daughter. Fear gripped my heart as I pulled back the threadbare hospital blanket to reveal a watermelon-sized tumor on her leg, which had swelled to twice the size of her other leg. To make matters worse, she was small and frail, no more than 50 pounds.
I explained to the girl’s mother that she had a very serious tumor and she was now becoming septic, therefore in danger of losing the battle currently waging inside of her. Considering her tumor had become necrotic, the only possible way to save her life was to take her to surgery and perform an amputation of her leg.
Communication in medicine and parenting is vital for building trust and respect; no relationship will thrive without it. Just as my patients need to feel that I truly care about their well-being and opinions for treatment, my daughters also need to feel as if their view of the world matters to me and I’m not trying to control them.
Compassion is another trait I have come to embrace as a surgeon that has greatly impacted my abilities as a father. When I was in Liberia and was able to perform surgery on that adorable 4-year-old girl, I was overwhelmed by a sense of purpose to help as many patients like her as I possibly could.
Compromise is sometimes necessary. As I prepped for the amputation surgery, I’ll never forget that little girl’s mother grabbing my hand and saying, “Please save my daughter.” I explained to her what to expect during the surgery and she requested that I not remove the tribal band from around her daughter’s waist. The interpreter explained that her tribe is Mandingo, a long-standing African tribe. They believe if they remove their waistband, she will never make it to heaven. She explained that with her tribal band they will take care of her on the other side in the afterlife if she passes during surgery. I promised the mother I would not remove it and would do everything in my power to respect her wishes.
I explained to our surgical team what needed to be done, and we scraped together every ounce of blood that we could find in the hospital. I even donated my own money to buy blood to ensure we had enough for surgery. Very early in the procedure, the anesthesiologist said that her pressure was dropping and we were losing her. I started performing CPR on her chest and instructed the nurse to come take over so I could tie off the femoral artery and veins near her inner thigh. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, the anesthesiologist announced that her pressure was back up and she was no longer crashing. I nearly collapsed from relief.
The body never ceases to amaze me. Incredibly, immediately following the removal of the tumor, the remaining tissues returned to a normal color, no longer necrotic. The very next day she was sitting up and eating, and able to smile at me as she continued to play in her bed. I will never forget her smile or her surgery with her tribal band around her waist. This tiny human changed my life forever that day, and I have taken the lessons in compassion and compromise that I learned from her and her mother and directly applied them to my relationship with my children.
Many surgeons would say that the rules are the rules, as would most parents, but I realized that day that a patient is more than just a test subject. My communication, compassion, and compromise for and with my young patient’s family in the direst of situations meant more than controlling every aspect of the situation.
When I took these 3-C principles and applied them to my parenting style, I noticed an immediate positive result in my daughters, too. They, like my patients, were then more likely to listen to what I shared and advised, rather than dismiss it out of frustration of being “talked over” or ignored. Considering one of my girls is well into her teenage years, this has become an invaluable tool.
These all-important lessons in communication, compassion, and compromise that I have been fortunate enough to learn as a surgeon have benefited me even more greatly as a parent. My daughters have come to appreciate a father who listens with the intent to hear, rather than the intent to reply, all the while being open to compromise when we disagree. Of all the accolades I’ve received over the course of my career, none mean more to me than the love and respect of my daughters, as I hope they will one day pay it forward to future generations.
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