A neurosurgeon considers stepping out of her comfort zone

There are few things I enjoy more than talking about the spine and the brain.

Therefore, it stands to reason that I enjoyed our state neurosurgical society meeting recently. I don’t like big national meetings, being an introvert at heart. Our state meeting, however, is small; this makes for a more intimate atmosphere and more outspoken dialogue. Colleagues from across the state can exchange ideas, new techniques, and opinions. We also discuss issues of importance to us locally, such as our lack of a motorcycle helmet law.

I generally come away from these meetings with a new idea or two to implement in my practice. I fear becoming a “dinosaur,” stuck in the rut of old techniques and outdated technology. My patients deserve my best efforts to stay current, as difficult as that sometimes is. Looking back at the last 9 years, I think I’ve done a pretty good job with keeping up to date, particularly as related to the spine (my professional passion).

That weekend, I sat in that chilly conference room second-guessing myself.

My colleagues are astonishing. One academic cerebrovascular surgeon showed a video depicting the results of the new non-profit organization he founded recently. Neurosurgeons travel to East Africa in groups to train local doctors in basic and emergency neurosurgery. He envisions such a training network all over Africa, bringing ongoing lifesaving care to thousands. They operate on brain tumors without microscopes, power drills, even electric lights. And the outcomes are remarkably good.

Another colleague, a skull base specialist, presented a series of “eyebrow craniotomies” in which he removes tumors through a single eyebrow incision and an endoscope. It’s hard to get less invasive than that. Yet another brought me up to date on the neurophysiology of consciousness and the two biological definitions of time, all over dinner.

I had looked forward to seeing the only other woman neurosurgeon in our state, but she wasn’t there. She was in another state doing a fellowship in interventional neuroradiology, learning to coil aneurysms. She already has a fellowship in neurotrauma, and she is laying the groundwork for a new residency program at her hospital system.

Driving back across the state, I tried to envision how my colleagues do all these marvelous things. I don’t know how they find the time and energy. I admit that I struggle just to keep juggling all the basic balls: raising a kid, running a practice, taking care of a house and husband, the things we all do as routine. I am doing my dead-level best to just stay current in my field. Professionally, I am inspired by all the possibilities out there; I would love, for instance, to learn to do an eyebrow craniotomy. I probably should learn. Practically, I can’t imagine taking time for more training or an overseas mission trip, or anything on top of my current load. I understand Bilbo Baggins when he said, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

So, this week, despite my glimpse of the shining frontier, I feel myself inevitably settling back into my comfort zone. My familiar routines embrace me like a warm, cozy bed. Just as it’s hard to get out of bed in the early dark, it’s so hard to contemplate changing the patterns of my practice and my life in a dramatic way. I’m actually alarmed at how much harder it is as the years go by. Maybe it’s time to push myself out of the zone and see how much more I can do.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s wiser to stick with what I do best, as opposed to scraping myself over even more bread. How important do you think it is to keep stepping out of the comfort zone?

By “gcs15″ is a neurosurgeon who blogs at Mothers in Medicine.


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