Samuel Shem’s classic novel/satire of medicine, The House of God (published in 1978, more than two million copies sold), follows protagonist Dr. Roy Basch as he struggles through his year as an internal medicine intern. A second physician recommends Basch switch careers to one of six no-patient-contact specialties: Rays, Gas, Path, Derm, Eyes, or Psych. These names translate to radiology, anesthesia, pathology, dermatology, ophthalmology, and psychiatry. These specialties are touted as lower stress choices with superior lifestyles, where time with sick patients is minimized and the physician is more likely to be happy.
Is this true? Is anesthesia worthy of Samuel Shem’s assessment that it’s a cushy specialty?
My answer, after thirty years of anesthesia practice, is … it depends.
Let’s examine each of the six specialties regarding their perceived advantages:
• Radiology involves a career of peering at digital images of X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, or ultrasound studies. Patient contact is minimal. Because many of these tests are ordered in emergency rooms at all hours of the night, on-call radiologists work long hours and endure sleepless nights. As well, the subspecialty of Invasive Radiology has become a hands-on field that requires as much patient contact as most surgical specialties.
• Pathology involves a career of peering through a microscope, running a clinical lab to determine blood and urine chemistry results, or performing autopsies. Most of pathology requires zero contact with living patients. Most pathology work is done in daylight hours, and loss of sleep is unusual.
• Dermatology involves a career of seeing a multitude of patients (think 80 – 100 per day) in a busy clinic practice. Patient volume and patient contact are high. Each clinic visit is brief because only the specific skin lesions in question are fair game for physician-patient interrogation. Hospitalized patients are uncommon, there are few emergencies, and loss of sleep is unusual.
• Ophthalmology involves an office practice of examining the vision and eyes of patients, as well as an operating room practice of performing cataract, retinal, or corneal surgeries. Other than an occasional eye trauma surgery at a late hour, loss of sleep for ophthalmologists is unusual.
• Psychiatry involves an outpatient practice of verbal therapy and/or prescribing oral medications (e.g. antidepressants, anti-anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder meds). Inpatient psychiatry is usually limited to patients with severe depression and psychotic diseases. Most emergencies are limited to patients with after-hours suicidal ideation or attempts. Loss of sleep is unusual.
• Anesthesiology involves providing unconsciousness and medical management to patients during all types of surgical interventions. Surgeries occur at all hours of the day and night. Loss of sleep is common, and job stress during select cases can be extreme. Let’s examine lifestyle issues of anesthesia practice in more detail:
An anesthesiologist and his or her awake surgical patient are only together for only 15 minutes prior to induction of anesthesia, during which time they exchange information on medical history and informed consent. This brief duration doesn’t exactly qualify for The House of God’s no-patient-contact list, but anesthesia does qualify as very-little-awake-patient contact. Minimal time with conscious patients appeals to physicians who don’t relish prolonged face-to-face patient interaction.
An image of your anesthesiologist playing tennis or golf and then waltzing into the operating room at leisure to do a simple surgery is mistaken. The presence of an anesthesiologist is imperative for nearly every emergency procedure. All emergency medical care follows the guideline of A-B-C, or Airway-Breathing-Circulation, and anesthesiologists are airway specialists nonpareil. Emergency room attendings and head and neck surgeons have certain airway skills, but no other specialty has the depth of airway expertise that anesthesiologists own. An anesthesiologist provides care for 500–1000 patients per year, and every one of these patients requires acute management of the airway to assure safe oxygenation and breathing.
Trauma surgery, childbirth, acute surgical disease from the emergency room, and organ transplant surgery are as common at night as in the daytime. An on-call anesthesiologist at a busy community hospital may arrive at 6:30 a.m., do seven or eight surgical anesthetics which last until dusk, and then remain in the hospital all night to perform several epidural anesthetics on laboring women, anesthetize an 80-year-old woman for surgery to relieve a bowel obstruction, and replace an endotracheal tube in a struggling patient in the intensive care unit as the sun comes up the following day. An on-call anesthesiologist at a university hospital may arrive at 6:30 a.m. and attend to a complex liver-transplant surgery which lasts 20 hours and concludes at 3 a.m. A cushy specialty? Hardly.
A lifestyle advantage for anesthesiologists is that we can work hard and play hard. It’s possible for an anesthesiologist to take weeks or months off at a time if their employer or anesthesia group approves. There’s no chronic patient care/patient follow up, no clinic overhead, and no clinic employee overhead. For these reasons an anesthesiologist can schedule multiple weeks without work or income more easily than a clinic doctor can. For these reasons it’s also possible for an anesthesiologist to work part time, i.e. two or three days each week. This scheduling flexibility is an excellent lifestyle advantage, and for this reason my answer to whether anesthesia is a cushy specialty is … it depends.
Some anesthesiologists choose to spend their career outside the operating room. Some specialize in pain management and see patients in outpatient pain clinics—selected patients are taken to the operating room non-urgently to receive pain-injection procedures such as epidural steroid injections, nerve blocks, or pain pump insertions. A small number of anesthesiologists run preoperative assessment clinics where they assess the medical status of patients prior to surgery. A small number of anesthesiologists supervise intensive care units and manage critically patients who require ventilators, cardio-active medications, and anesthesia sedation infusions.
I’d like to leave you with one image imprinted in your mind—that of an anesthesiologist toiling over an ill patient at 2 a.m. in a hospital. The patient may have survived a car crash, suffered a ruptured appendix, be delivering twin babies, or be the recipient of a lung transplant. Wherever there’s a sick patient who needs acute supervised unconsciousness, there’s an anesthesiologist present. In words John Steinbeck wrote at the conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad tells his mother,
“I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere.
Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.
Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.
I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad.
I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”
This prompted me to pen parallel text regarding my specialty, entitled
Tom Joad the Anesthesiologist:
I’ll be all around in the dark—I’ll be everywhere.
Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a motorcycle accident, a Cesarean section, a heart transplant, I’ll be there.
Wherever there’s a cop dragging a knifed-up gang member into the E.R., I’ll be there.
I’ll be there when the surgeon screams and when the new mother laughs,
When the 100-year-old gets his hernia mended and when the 4-year-old gets his tonsils out—I’ll be there, too.
Ma, it’s just what I do.
It’s what we all do.
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
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