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Here’s how to tell them apart:
The beer-drinking sports fans? Those are the general orthopedic surgeons. They do their fellowship in sports medicine and they’ve never met a protein supplement they didn’t love.
The masochists, the men and women who enjoy being woken up at all hours so they can rush in and save the day? Those are the transplant surgeons.
If they like to hit on the nurses and tell everyone they make the most money, it’s a good chance they’re cardiothoracic surgeons.
The Ferrari drivers who want to be popular with the local celebrities, wear shiny suits, and do what we all refer to as “fake surgery”—plastic surgeons.
You catch my drift. We all have our idiosyncrasies, even me. I’m one part masochist, one part perfectionist. I have a little hero complex of my own and an ego that could fill this entire room, but it’s necessary. Who wants to put their kid’s spine in the hands of a simpering fool who buckles under pressure?
“Mind if I take a look?” Dr. Lopez asks.
I glance up from my plate to see him pointing to the files laid out in front of me.
I nod. “Go for it.” Then I think better of it and reach for the third one down—one from a particularly trying case I tackled last year. “Start with that one.”
He pulls out a chair opposite mine and sits down. “You intimidate Dr. Goddard. That’s why he acts like that.” I don’t reply. I didn’t sign up for a therapy session. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you, but he interviewed for the same fellowship as you and the program directors didn’t pick him.”
I muster up a half-interested hum then shove another bite of salmon in my mouth. He won’t succeed in convincing me that Dr. Goddard deserves my pity.
Dr. Lopez chuckles. “All right, I can see that you two won’t ever reach an understanding, so let’s focus on a different problem. How many surgical assistants have you run into the ground in the last year? Two? Three?”
Five, but I don’t correct him.
“I’ve had the same assistant for years and she’s great. She anticipates what I need in the operating room, she’s timely, and she’s sharp as a tack. She makes me a better surgeon. Do you catch my drift?”
I level him with a bored stare. He’s dangerously close to getting asked to leave my table. He might be one of the senior surgeons in this hospital, but he’s not my boss.
He trudges on, unmoved by the daggers I’m aiming at him. “You’re wasting your time training new assistants every few months. Your surgeries are hard enough without having someone green by your side. Think of how much more you could do with a team you trust.”
I’m annoyed to realize he does have a valid point, but it’s nothing new. I’ve come to this same conclusion myself. The problem is, I’ve yet to find an assistant who could last longer than a few weeks.
Josie doesn’t believe me when I say it, but I actually love my job as a surgical assistant. It feels like the path I would have chosen even if life hadn’t forced my hand. Sure, some parts get tedious—pulling instruments, prepping sterile fields, cleaning the OR—but the rest of it is awesome.
This work isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m Dr. Lopez’s right-hand woman during his surgeries. I’ve seen more blood and guts than a medic on a Civil War battlefield. I’ve watched patients code, surgeons breakdown, device reps faint, and instruments go missing.
The case we have this morning starts as they usually do, with Dr. Lopez and me fighting over which playlist we should stream over the speakers.
“You’re seriously going to pick oldies again?” I groan. “Don’t you see you’re walking right into a cliché?”
He grins. “I operate better when I’m listening to The Eagles.”
“Uh huh, so it’s just my imagination that I saw you shaking your hips to Maroon 5 last week?”
The anesthesiologist clears his throat as a gentle way of forcing Dr. Lopez’s hand.
“Fine. Why don’t we just let the rep decide?”
All eyes shift to a young guy standing in the corner of the operating room. His eyes widen in fear. He exudes nervous energy from every pore. He doesn’t want this responsibility. He’s here because he’s a glorified salesman. He wants Dr. Lopez to continue using his company’s insanely expensive spinal implants, and from the look of sheer terror on his face, he assumes one wrong song choice will get him kicked out of the OR.
“Uhh, I like The Eagles too,” he says, his voice wobbly.
Dr. Lopez throws me a conspiratorial wink. He really shouldn’t mess with them like that, but I know it’s too hard for him to resist.
It’s truly his only fault.
He’s a rare gem, and I fully realize how good I have it with this job. Surgeons are notoriously difficult to work for. They tend to have egos, attitudes, or god complexes—sometimes all three. Shiver. Dr. Lopez isn’t like that. His default mood is jovial. His scrub cap is adorned with smiling cartoon dogs. He takes a vested interest in his staff. He’s also old enough to be my grandfather, something he routinely tells me when I give him a hard time.
“I need the eight-millimeter spreader,” he says to me later, during the surgery.
I shake my head. “You always have me start with the eight on cases like this, but then you end up using the six, so I’m handing you the six. Let me know if you still want the eight.”
I catch the audible intake of breath from the device rep. No doubt he’s expecting Dr. Lopez to blow up at me for having the gall to question him. Any other surgeon might, but Dr. Lopez nods and takes the instrument.
I’m left with a big, cheesy smile hidden under my mask.
I’m good at my job.
I love my job.
I love my boss.
“Oh,” Dr. Lopez continues offhandedly, “would you mind coming to talk to me in my office this afternoon? After lunch?”
I have a good feeling about my meeting with Dr. Lopez. After I finish eating my sandwich, I dab, dab, dab my face with a napkin, swish around a little mouthwash, and then fire my finger guns straight at my reflection with a wink.
“This is it,” I say aloud, eyes aglow with possibilities. “Dr. Lopez is going to give you the raise you’ve been waiting for. He’s going to make it rain hundred-dollar bills, and Josie isn’t going to have to eat a tuna sandwich tonight. Nope. This calls for something fancy. STEAK. Okay, we aren’t that rich. Maybe some chicken that’s in the bargain bin because it’s one day shy of going bad.”
“Lady, are you almost done?”
Oh, right. I move aside and let the custodian push her mop past me. I want to ask how long she’s been standing there, but then she tells me the supermarket down the street is running a sale on beef. I should feel embarrassed, but who cares?! A RAISE is in my imminent future.
When I arrive outside Dr. Lopez’s door, I rap my knuckles across the thick oak in a cheerful cadence and then wait for his cue to enter.
“Come on in, Bailey!”
“How was your lunch?” I ask as I walk in, prepared to dabble in a little bit of small talk in the event that it will pad my raise just a teensy bit more. Hell, I’ll sit here and listen to him painstakingly describe his last round of golf if it means I don’t have to crack another can of shredded fish in this lifetime.
“Lunch was good.” He smiles at me from behind his desk and tells me to have a seat.
I have such a strong urge to flail with excitement that I have to stuff my hands under my butt. Dollar signs float in the dead space between the top of his head and the bottom of his fancy diplomas. He starts talking and I can barely pay attention as I start to rack up future purchases in my head.
I’m going to buy a new pair of tennis shoes. Josie is finally going to get a new winter coat. Maybe, maybe I can swing for a washer and dryer so I can stop carting our clothes to the laundromat.
“I hope this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise,” Dr. Lopez says, tugging me out of a vivid daydream in which I was smooching the front of a newly delivered washing machine.