Several years ago, my business hit rock bottom. As a young, traditionally trained surgeon, I was taught the old surgery adage: “To cut is to cure.” Following this mantra early in my practice led me into a deep, dark hole. I had operated on many patients, but several of them were unhappy, and some had suffered complications. In the small town where I practiced, the word began to spread that perhaps I wasn’t a plastic surgeon worth seeing.
Because of this, my finances were in shambles, my confidence was in the gutter, and one patient even threatened to destroy me and run me out of town. I thought I was a failure as a doctor. It was just a matter of weeks before I was likely to give up the profession all together.
Then I met Helen.
Helen was an 80-year-old woman who had undergone an open-heart surgery and developed a massive infection in her breastbone. When this happens, the entire chest can fall apart, causing the breastbone to basically turn to mush. In order to treat it, the cardiac surgeon consults a plastic surgeon to remove the infected bone and reconstruct the chest. As the plastic surgeon on call, I was asked to see her.
I met Helen in the ICU and discovered that her breastbone had indeed split open, and the wires keeping the sternum in place had unraveled. Puss seeped through the opening, infecting the bone and turning it to something resembling gelatin. Her chest was a mess.
That night, I operated on Helen. I removed her dead sternum and transferred her pectoralis and abdominal muscles into her chest to fill in the hole left behind. I worked slowly, precisely and meticulously. The operation took almost six hours but went very smoothly. I finished at 4 o’clock in the morning, feeling exhausted and exhilarated.
Despite her age, Helen healed well. For the next month, I popped into the ICU and checked on her every day. Each day she improved slowly and steadily, as did my confidence as a surgeon. Here was a patient who was doing better because of my intervention and my surgical skills. She reminded me why I had decided to enter this field so many years ago.
At the beginning of her fifth week in the hospital, Helen was moved out of the ICU and onto the floor — a good sign. I continued to check on her each day.
Six weeks into her recovery, as she was close to being sent home, I got stuck at my office, working late. I looked at the time and realized that I wouldn’t be able to get to the hospital until after 10 o’clock. So, I decided to skip that one day and check on Helen first thing in the morning.
The next morning I arrived at the hospital early, before seven o’clock, and found that Helen was not in her room. Concerned, I looked her up in the computer. My heart sank. She’d been moved back to the ICU.
I rushed to the ICU, and while I was picking up the pace, my anxiety and negativity began to assault me.
Crap. I miss one day, and she ends up in the ICU, I thought to myself. What could’ve happened to her? If only I hadn’t missed that one day ... Something happened with my surgery. It must be my fault. The muscles I transferred probably came apart. I must’ve screwed up.
I arrived in her room and looked at poor Helen, quiet and pale, hooked up to a ventilator. My work looked intact and was healing perfectly. Composed, shaking off my stupid, irrational, self-hating line of thinking, I asked Helen’s family how she was doing.
They told me that she’d had an unexpected, massive heart attack. She was not expected to survive more than a day or two.
Again, my heart sank. I looked at Helen — sedated, motionless, a tangle of wires hooked up to seemingly every inch of her, her breaths regular and mechanical, in time with the ventilator. This woman I’d poured so much of myself into was sliding toward death. I left her room feeling sad and dejected.
The next day, I checked on her.
She remained comatose, attached to the ventilator, her eyes closed, her breathing rhythmic, sounding artificial and metallic. I felt helpless, hopeless and lost, knowing there was nothing I could do for her. “To cut is to cure,” right? That was no longer the case with Helen.
“I pulled a chair next to her bed and, purely by instinct, grabbed her hand ... I did the only thing I could think to do. I prayed to God to please help Helen. I didn’t know if God or anyone was listening, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
I pulled a chair next to her bed and, purely by instinct, grabbed her hand. Her fingers felt cold and nearly lifeless. I gently folded my fingers over hers and held her hand in mine for five or six minutes. I did the only thing I could think to do. I prayed to God to please help Helen. I didn’t know if God or anyone was listening, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I came back the next day and held her hand again.
And I came back the next day. And the next. And every day for a week. Each day I held Helen’s hand. She, of course, didn’t know it, since she wasn’t conscious or awake. Still, I sat with her and held her hand; I was a plastic surgeon without any surgery to perform.
About 10 days later, when I came into her room, she seemed to be in a state approaching consciousness. I’m not sure what made me think that. All signs and every bit of information I received from her family indicated that she was falling deeper into unconsciousness and that she was not going to survive. But something about her that day made me challenge that. When I looked closely, I could see that her color seemed better. Her eyelids fluttered. I pulled the chair over to her bed and sat down. When I did, she reached out her hand to me.
I took her hand and held it. This time I said, “Hey, Helen, how you doing? I think you’re getting better. Hang in there, okay? I’ll be back tomorrow.”
The next day when I came in, she again reached for my hand. I continued to check on her every morning, holding her hand and talking to her with soft encouragement.
One morning I came in, and Helen was sitting up in bed, off the ventilator, breathing on her own. I was floored.
“Holy cow, Helen! Look at you!” I said to her.
She smiled widely and replied, “Guess I’m not dead yet.”
“I guess not,” I said. “Everybody wrote you off. But you’re still here.”
She looked in my eyes. “Really? Everybody gave up on me?”
“Well, maybe not everybody.” I smiled. “But I mean it. You’re a miracle.”
She shrugged. “Miracles happen.”
“Unbelievable. Everything looks great. You’re healing fine,” I told her. “I think you’re gonna make it, Helen.”
Helen gestured for me to come closer. “I want to tell you something, Dr. Youn,” she said.
I must have looked confused because Helen pushed herself forward a little and said with quiet urgency, “I knew that you came in every day and held my hand. That made a big difference. I looked forward to seeing you every day. I just want to say, thank you.”
“I was just doing my job,” I said.
Helen reached over and took my hand.
“No,” she said. “This was beyond your job. You weren’t doing your job. You were being kind. I will always be grateful.”
Then she said three words that I remember to this day: “You saved me.”
She squeezed my hand. I smiled at her.
“In a lot of ways, you saved me too.” I squeezed her hand in return.
As a young doctor, my experience with Helen helped me realize that the most important things in plastic surgery, and medicine in general, aren’t performing the most operations, having a successful practice, or being respected by my peers. Those would come in time. The most important thing was taking the best care of my patients. And if I did, everything would eventually come together as it should.
The care could come in the form of giving the best medical advice or recommending the correct diagnostic test or even operating on a sternum that had turned to mush. But sometimes ― just sometimes ― it’s as simple as holding a person’s hand and telling her that everything is going to be OK.
Known as America’s Holistic Plastic Surgeon®, Anthony Youn, M.D. is a nationally recognized, board-certified plastic surgeon. He’s the author of “Playing God: The Evolution of a Modern Surgeon,” a memoir that details his humorous, heartwarming, and often harrowing journey to become a modern, holistic surgeon. Learn more about him at www.dryoun.com.