Being a surgeon can be deeply rewarding. That reward is intimately connected with patient outcome: an operation completed without complication, a complete tumour resection, the restoration of function, the preservation of life. And the reward is enhanced when a patient expresses gratitude. No doubt, plenty of us keep a few thank you letters in the drawer to read on the days and nights when things go less than perfectly. Sometimes, however, that gratitude can feel a little awkward and maybe we sometimes underplay it.
Giskin Day performs research regarding gratitude and the 'gratitudinal encounter'. She writes:
"Surgeons may see their self-effacing refusal of gratitude as a rare opportunity to counter their reputation as confident, commanding, self-assured operators".
I think she is right. "It's just my job, I'm just a part of the team", are phrases used to 'minimise thanks'. I've used them myself and heard other surgeons do the same.
Interestingly, this may not be the right approach. She continues: "The true sign of humility is the recognition that the patient's need to express gratitude may be greater than the surgeon's need to hear it." She advocates a more positive outlook, arguing that if gratitude is 'seen' and acknowledged, rather than downplayed, it is likely to benefit the subjective well-being of everyone in the encounter.
Surgeons' mental health can be brittle, burnout is a real issue, and cynicism is easy to let in as the years go by. Maybe, therefore, we should all try to acknowledge gratitude better. These ideas are not limited to the patient: surgeon relationship. Staff feeling undervalued by other colleagues compounds unhappiness. Gratitude is a key part of a supportive culture and something that we can all share. At the end of the next theatre list, a quick expression of gratitude may well improve the whole team's wellbeing - including your own.
Consultant Neurosurgeon and Honorary Senior Lecturer, Edinburgh