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Caring, Character & Calling: Lessons From the Operating Room

April 21, 2021

Did you ever have a teacher who changed your course or your life? Someone whose habits, actions, insights and integrity made you want to follow in their footsteps? Dell Medical School students share personal stories of profound influencers in this blog series.

All members of the Dell Medical School community are welcome to submit stories of teachers or mentors whose character moved them and made a difference in their development. This story is shared by Daphne Hancock, second-year student at Dell Med.

I had heard many things about surgeons: words like intense, direct and harsh were frequently thrown around by peers to describe those choosing surgery as their profession — or calling, rather. I figured I would likely not fit in to this world as I started my surgery rotation, my first clinical rotation as a medical student. I planned that I would get this rotation behind me and try to learn as much as possible about patient care, general medicine and outpatient clinic, while surviving the OR days. But then I got lucky enough to be placed into a four-week urology elective, an unusual surgical elective for a second-year medical student at my school. This was just another curriculum modification thanks to the pandemic. Little did I know, this elective would change my entire outlook on surgery.

In the OR, my attending, Charles Osterberg, involved me in every aspect of the surgery. He taught me to cut, hold, burn and tie. On the operative report, I was listed as his assistant. But just because he was supportive of me doesn’t mean that he was easy on me. He also supported me by giving me constructive feedback on my sutures and how I needed to improve them. He reminded me of which anatomy I needed to review better for our next case, and he assigned me homework to tie one hundred knots at home every night. My attending and I ate lunch together every day, as we paused to refuel during hectic days to take a few moments to discuss topics ranging from adventures we got into with our families on the prior weekend to the cost-effectiveness of various surgical options for men with urethral strictures.

Two weeks into the four-week elective, my attending handed me a test. It was a two-page multiple choice test to check my knowledge on some bread-and-butter topics of urology. I became stressed at the thought of a pop quiz — I hadn’t studied for this! But after handing me my test, Dr. Osterberg said something along the lines of: “This is so that I can see if I’m teaching you what you need to know.” To describe this surgeon I know, I wouldn’t use words like intense, direct, or harsh. I would use words like committed, caring, and devoted. Not only is Dr. Osterberg providing exceptional care to his current roster of patients — he is already caring for patients of the future as he teaches the next generation of doctors with the same devotion.

The Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine (KNN) is a national network of seven medical schools dedicated to advance caring and character in medicine with the goal of promoting human flourishing. Guided by the principles of caring and character, the KNN provides a framework for training physicians, strengthening joy in medicine and improving health to promote human flourishing within, across and beyond the medical profession to positively impact individuals and communities in our society.

This initiative was made possible through support from the Kern National Network for Caring & Character in Medicine through an investment from the Kern Family Trust and Kern Family Foundation.