“I’ll sew the parts that are close to me, and you sew the parts that are close to you,” the attending surgeon told me as we studied the carotid artery of our patient.
The carotid artery directs blood flow to the brain. In some people, it can gradually narrow, increasing the risk of stroke. This patient’s artery was almost 90 percent closed. So, our goal was to open it up, clean out the plaques inside, and return it to as close to its normal state as possible.
As I was sewing, I thought about the gravity of this task and what it would mean for our patient. The attending surgeon watched my needlework closely, critiquing my every stitch.
“Make sure to pass the needle deeper," he advised. "You should load the needle at a different angle on your instrument. Good. That’s better.”
My intense concentration shrank my awareness of the whole world down to this one artery. When I finished sewing, I sighed with relief. We were done with the hardest part and were happy with the way it looked.
Only a year ago, when I first started my internship, I was learning to sew skin together after a procedure.
Now I had the privilege of participating in the most critical aspects of the operation, and closing an incision was no problem.
“Thank you. I can finish up from here,” I told the attending, assuming he would want to go talk to our patient’s family.
His response caught me by surprise.
“I taught you how to sew the carotid. So why don’t you come stand where I am and teach the nursing student how to close skin?”
Me? Teach someone else how to sew? I still had so much to learn, how could I possibly teach?
However, as I began to walk her through the steps, I realized what the surgeon was doing. He was helping me understand and embrace a powerful mind-set that applies not only to surgery, but to all of life.
In my mind, I was only focused on looking upward and seeing where I had to grow.
But he wanted me to see that even as a new trainee, I also had plenty to share with others — I needed only to look back and reflect on how far I had come.
No matter where you are in life, there is always someone else who can learn and grow from what you have already accomplished. We all share a tremendous capacity to influence others, even if we don’t yet appreciate it.
It was incredibly rewarding to teach the nursing student how to sew that afternoon. Since that day, I have made a conscious effort to always look for opportunities to teach.
Yet it can be easier to notice skills or information that you lack and want to gain, than to appreciate what you already have and could be sharing with others. Just like my attending surgeon, who shared not only his experience of sewing on the carotid artery, but also his wisdom about what I can do to share my own gifts.