It’s a true story written by an orthopedic surgeon. Not only is he a phenomenal surgeon, he is also an incredible writer. He has helped take my personal statements for medical school and residency from good to “Wow!”
After working with him these last few years, I’ve learned a lot about how to strategically use words to pull the reader in and keep them wanting more. My personal statement came up at almost every interview for medical school and residency.
I was very proud of it but please know that I gave myself PLENTY of time to write (and edit) it, had a “team” full of editors including this surgeon, and did not submit it until it was done. And I mean done.
Now, it’s story time…
I first learned of Alex when a telephone call from the Emergency Room awakened me around midnight. The reporting doctor burst into a quick recitation of the patient’s history. Young man… Knife accident… Left hand… Tendons and nerves… Confronted by this barrage of staccato utterances. I requested that he slow down and begin again. It was then that Alex’s story unfolded.
Several days prior, Alex had been cleaning fish with a hunting knife and accidentally cut across the four fingers of his left hand. He fashioned a makeshift bandage from an old towel and headed for the nearest hospital. There, the emergency room doctors examined the wound, cleaned, and dressed it. They informed Alex that he had probably severed all of the flexor tendons in his fingers along with the major sensory nerves and that unless his injuries were repaired surgically, he would be left with an immobile, insensate hand. He was told to see a hand surgeon the following day to arrange for surgery.
Alex reported to the surgeon’s office but the receptionist told him to return the next day. Dutifully, he complied, only to learn that the office manager would not schedule an appointment because he had neither money nor insurance. She suggested that he apply for AHCCCS (Arizona’s equivalent of Medicaid) at the Eligibility Office across town. He hitchhiked to the office but after spending nearly a day mired in that bureaucratic morass, he gave up in frustration and instead, came to the emergency room pleading for someone to fix his hand. Nearly four days had elapsed since his injury.
When I met Alex, I found him to be an engaging young man, quick with a quip or a smile in spite of the adversity of recent days. He confessed sheepishly that his dream was to become a drummer but his carelessness may have ruined that now. Holding a pencil in each hand, he tried to show me a “riff” but the pencil in his left hand rolled out involuntarily. I examined his hand, concurring with the original diagnosis of multiple tendon and nerve lacerations. The delicate architecture of tendon and pulley balance would need to be reconstituted and the nerves repaired. He shrugged and said, “I just want to play the drums again.”
Surgery started promptly at 8:00 A.M. I gently unwrapped Alex’s hand as it lay lifeless on the operating room table, his fingers flat, devoid of tone. As expected, both of the tendons in each of the four fingers were transected as were five of the eight sensory nerves. Methodically, I began to repair the tendons, striving to restore the proper tension needed to give them their mechanical advantage. Too tight and the fingers wouldn’t straighten; too loose and the fingers wouldn’t bend. Then, peering through a microscope, I located the nerve ends and sewed them together with suture finer than human hair. After six-and-a-half hours, the reconstruction was complete. The resting posture of the fingers, a progressive flexed cascade from index to little, had been restored. It was a hand that would grasp a drumstick again.
Postoperatively, I outlined for Alex what had been done and how it would influence the physical therapy rehabilitation program to restore function to his hand. He was indifferent to all of this. His primary concerns were what he considered deficient nursing attention, the minimal number of meal selections, and the inadequate doses of narcotics. In the ensuing days until his discharge, I assuaged, bartered, and reasoned for compromise. Before he left to go home, I checked Alex’s hand for possible evidence of infection or failure of the tendon repair: everything looked good. I reiterated some of the instructions and precautions that had been discussed in physical therapy, then headed out the door. “Hey, Doc,” he cried out, stopping me just as I turned the corner. “Don’t forget the pain pills.” I nodded and continued on, thinking it strange that he had never said, “Thank you.”