ASGBI Guide to who is who

ASGBI Guide to who is who

This post was published in 2014 and I have updated it for ASGBI 2017. 

This week it is ASGBI and just about everyone who thinks that they are anyone in general surgery in the UK is there.

Here is my guide to some of the types of people you get at ASGBI:

The reps
The reps have a secret agenda, the chances are that you aren’t it, nonetheless they have to be polite and humour your enquiries and idiotic questioning undertaken to fulfil your agenda; trying to see down her low cut top and check out her impressive tits. 
I have an ASGBI shopping list, pens, a novelty USB drive, mints, a rucksack and something childishly smutty, like anal dilators.

The newly appointed consultant
This guy is cock of the walk, he wants to show his colleagues just what a great decision they made appointing him. He will have 3 videos, 2 talks and a few posters. He will ask lots of questions, slag off other people’s work and will be wearing a suit.

The bonkers staff grade
Bonkers staff grade does a nice wee job in a district general hospital and does nothing but hernias, haemorrhoids and gall bladders. Inexplicably they will be at a practical session about trans anal microsurgery and a talk on the new Reboa balloon in major trauma, where they will ask questions like “usually in trauma we do a diagnostic peritoneal lavage”. No, we don’t.

Party boy
Party boy is on a mission, a mission to get trashed like it is 1996 and throw up during the plenary lecture and not recall anything about the presentation he gives because he was still drunk. Woo hoo!!

The post-CCT registrar
This guy will hopefully be a newly appointed consultant next year but right now he is sweating and stressed. He is looking for a job, he has to ditch party boy and bonkers staff grade who are both making him look bad (really bad) and start speaking to people and making a good impression. He has 4 posters (disaster) and the medical student he supervised has been given an oral presentation, the little bastard.
He is getting a lot of love from the reps, not as much as new consultant but enough to make him feel important.

Good Guy Professor
Good guy is loved by everyone, he knows everyone and keeps his team (including party boy, bonkers staff grade and all the registrars) on speed dial and firmly on his radar. He manages to look after everyone and deliver a superb plenary talk. The team would walk over coals for him, they all want to sit beside him in the pub. He buys all the wine and has never tried to shag his trainees, well at least none of the current ones. 

The Sex Pest
This man is easy to spot, he’s staring at every female (10% female delegates) like he wants to lick her. He has delivered a few talks, but is feeling inadequate because his old SHO has somehow become a Professor and has a hot second wife and an A merit award and he is feeling hard done to. It would help if he could have sex with someone, anyone. He sits with his legs open looking at his crotch and licking his lips when a woman is presenting and smiling at her, like a wolf. He will try to grope a ripe young medical student if he gets within feeling distance.

The wanker
Wanker is a junior registrar in a suit. He has his name badge proudly on display and has been up to every important person and introduced himself. He goes to every session from 8am to 6pm and all the lunch sessions too. He makes notes and takes photos of himself with notable professors from around the world that he puts on Facebook. His colleagues hate him, he eats lunch alone because he makes eating noises and talks shop.

The Specialist Surgeon 

Fuck knows why he has come to Glasgow. All he talks about is how he has three presentations at his specialty meeting. He asks stupid questions that begin “this is more of an observation..”. He hates general surgery and only knows about polyps of the anterior rectum that are more than 2cm and less than 4cm. He doesn’t do other operations or any scopes or any general surgery like hernias and gallbags (please, I’m special) or on call (yuck!) because he is so special. 

I have a military style attitude to this meeting; get in and get out. Arrive late and leave early. Bring a faithful wingman if possible and avoid all of the above apart from Good Guy Professor.

73 things a surgical trainee should know 

73 things a surgical trainee should know 

1. Be kind to everyone.

2. Look after your mental health.

3. Be honest always.

4. Never put anything in writing you wouldn’t say aloud

5. Don’t trust everyone you meet.

6. Nobody cares about you more than you should care. 

7. Keep fit.

8. Keep a diary of operations and techniques.

9. Organise yourself.

10. Drink enough every day and never miss more than one meal.

11. Remember this is just work.

12. Forgive yourself your small mistakes and forgive others theirs.

13. Don’t walk away from the operating table with any regrets or concerns. Deal with them there and then and walk away happy.

14. People die.

15. The nurses should like you,  but if they all like you all the time you are probably going wrong.

16. You don’t have to justify your choices to anyone. If you walk away from this and do something else or if you decide you want to be professor of surgery, both choices are equally valid and worthwhile.

17. Don’t shit on your doorstep. Take it from me, it never ends well.

18. Your professional reputation will come from what you do and how you do it, it takes time to build but seconds to destroy it.

19. When you need help, ask for help.

20. There is no shame in not knowing something.

21. Always be truthful in your professional life.

22. Consent people with plenty of time and due care, preparing for surgery is important and consent should be done just as well and carefully as the operation is performed.

23. Sometimes your best won’t be good enough.

24. You won’t like all the patients you meet.

25. They won’t all like you either, recognise that when it happens and step back.

26. Be especially kind to yourself, be your own best friend.

27. Find people you admire and watch how they work.

28. Same for people you don’t like, pinpoint what you don’t like and avoid doing that.

29. You can still be you and be a surgeon.

30. Some patients will touch your heart and stay with you forever, remember them and the lessons they teach you.

31. Don’t trust the sigmoid for an anastomosis.

32. Don’t fuck with the pancreas

33. A cut blood vessel has two ends

34. The operation can’t be said to have gone well until the patient is discharged home and you have seen the pathology results.

35. When you feel like crying, have a cry and then wipe the mascara, give yourself a hug and carry on.

36. You are not as good as the last operation you did, so don’t crumble when something goes wrong.

37. The natural history of most things is that they get better with time.

38. Apart from appendicitis, that usually  gets worse.

39. You are more than just your work, don’t let it define you.

40. Be kind and nice to juniors, they might overtake you and anyway they will spread your reputation wherever they go.

41. Don’t dislike pretty female medical students, they are the future and need to feel welcomed.

42. Have a daily routine for where you keep your watch and rings, it’s unprofessional to flap about at work looking for lost jewellery and wastes time when you should be working.

42. Always, always have money on your person to buy food and drink. You don’t know how badly wrong your day can go and having change at 10pm can make or break you.

43. Caffeine. You will need caffeine.

44. Alcohol, this you don’t really need. Never drink when you are sad, or if you are operating next day.

45. You will never stop learning or improving, it’s a lifelong process. Enjoy it.

46. There is always going to be someone better than you.

47. Very few surgeons think that they are average surgeons, half of them are worse than average. Have insight into where you are.

48. Wearing makeup and pretty shoes and reading Grazia as well as the BJS are all perfectly acceptable.

49. Not wearing makeup is also acceptable. Your female surgeon friends should be cherished and respected for who they are.

50. Rise above the stuff that doesn’t matter.

51. You will carry with you and become a product of all of the people who train you and mould you. That’s a gift and a joy to be a part of.

52. Remember that being a trainee is a transitory role, don’t be a dick.

53. Don’t lose your temper, ever, in a professional setting.

54. Hospital politics requires years of practice, listen and watch but stay out of it until you are well established.

55. Organise the rota if you can, it is worth the hassle.

56. Don’t disrespect LTFT trainees or people on maternity/paternal leave, it might be you one day.

57. Stand up for what is right.

58. It should feel good and make you happy at least 50% of the time.

59. The purpose of a ward round is to make the patients feel cared for and safe, not just to ensure they are cared for and safe.

60. When you feel you’ve made a mistake or had a complication do a ward round, it makes everything better.

61. Don’t trust a surgeon who isn’t happy and relaxed in theatre.

62. Don’t trust an anaesthetist who never questions any of your decisions.

63. The anaesthetist is your friend.

64. Lead the team in a way that feels comfortable to you.

65. Don’t try and be someone else.

66. Don’t hide your intraoperative problems from the anaesthetist.

67. Remember that you are lucky to live in this world, in this time, to do this job and be so privileged.

68. Smile and enjoy it. You have worked hard.

69. Foster good relations with other specialists, you never know when you might need them.

70. Don’t do drugs, ever.

72. Treat your seniors with respect, even if you don’t respect them that much.

73. Be prepared to be the subject of gossip, you will be talked about; good and bad, accurate and inaccurate.

Poker face 

Poker face 

I watch a great many of my colleagues operate, some junior and some senior and some around the same as me. One of my great leaders tells me that my biggest problem in life is my inability to control my face. I can keep my mouth shut but the contents of my head are visible in my expression. Handily I wear a mask in theatre but it’s in the eyes and eyebrows apparently. Somehow people can see “oh my god that is horrible” and “seriously, you’ve made another enterotomy” just from the eyes. 

Why this is my problem I don’t know, it has served me well in my personal life and on the odd occasions when it has led to be being caught out telling a lie, that was for the best in the end too. 

One of my bosses just now encourages me  not to talk at all when I am operating, we do mostly laparoscopic surgery together. This person wants me to not utter a word other than to the scrub nurse or to my assistant to pull harder or clean the camera. This is very difficult, my constant chatter and explaining to everyone what is happening  is a longstanding habit. 

This person thinks that I/we should know that it is now time to move to the next part of the operation, by careful following of the case. This gets on my nerves immensely and when I used to assist, rather than operate under the supervision of this individual, I would frequently fall asleep holding the camera as it was so very quiet, boring and  hot beside the Bair Hugger. 

In terms of surgical philosophy this person and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum, the annoying thing for me is that I have to pretend I agree with all they say and do as that is what a registrar does. 

I’m a fake, everybody else in theatre knows I’m a fake and that this silent operating is not me. When I am alone there is talking, music, teaching, communicating. I’m not even quiet when I’m sleeping and frequently wake myself up talking loudly. If it gets hard or I can’t concentrate I am a big enough girl to establish silence in theatre. 

This boss insists I persevere with this odd, almost religious silence, we have music on very briefly sometimes but it has to be quiet and goes off at the first sign of difficulty. 

I wonder what the scrub nurses make of it all. In a few weeks I will be free to sing along to the music and enjoy my job the way I want to, all the time, not just when I have my own lists or am being left alone. I am so tired of doing everything somebody  else’s way and nodding like an idiot with things I completely disagree with when everyone can see I am a fake.

“Yes I totally agree”.

Theoria and Praxis

Surgeons learn in a very special way; we learn by watching, then by assisting, then by doing small parts of a procedure under supervision, then small parts unsupervised, then the whole operation supervised, followed by increasingly large parts unsupervised and then independent practice. It is not a linear progression and no two operations are ever the same, one virgin abdomen and a small, flaccid gallbladder makes for a very different laparoscopic cholecystectomy than the patient with a BMI of 38, a previous laparotomy for a perforated ulcer and a five 5 day old acute gallbladder the size of a ferret. Learning will proceed with ups and downs over time and mastery of a particular skill takes repeated attempts, repeated errors and their consequent correction as well as increasing technical skill. Acquisition of the theoretical knowledge takes time as well. 
Theoria, from which the word theory is derived, meant more than that in ancient Greek, it is thinking and theory, but also contemplation and the art of being a spectator. Praxis, also from ancient Greek, is the application of that theory in the real world, the process of applying ideas and doing what you have learned, practice. They are two of Aristotle’s basic activities of man, the other being poeisis, (making) which is what with all the theoria and praxis is the end result, you have made a consultant surgeon. 

I had no idea what books to buy when I commenced surgical training, to gather all the theory, nobody sat me down and told me how or what to learn. I received a salary and did a job and the implication was that in the course of doing my job I would pick up the skills along the way. The process of postgraduate exams has always ensured that the correct amount of knowledge was acquired by trainees, the ridiculous hours worked meant we picked up the on the job knowledge and technical skills.

Having been trained by someone recently who had an above average interest in what and how I was doing every single thing, I have spent more than my usual amount of time reflecting on my practice. It is a term that medical students on the most part dislike and some struggle with reflecting effectively. 

Surgeons in Bighospital are not prone to introspection, at least they are not prone to it in public with us and they don’t teach us to do it. We do something called M&M, morbidity and mortality, where we discuss deaths and complications and ask as a team what we could have done differently. It is very benign, we almost never decide that we have done something wrong, we certainly do not admit to what we could have done better at an individual level. In some hospitals there is a robust and almost aggressive analysis of management of complications but not here. I am always amazed at US medical shows where someone is destroyed at the M&M. It is not like that in the U.K.  

The key to reflection in my mind is the question “What could I have done better here?”. 

This is the way I approach most of my post operative analysis and is a very simple and unstructured way of assessing performance. Reviewing recorded laparoscopic operations is very helpful and a good way to see where you could have improved operatively. I have spent several hours this evening watching a pile of videos of my recent laparoscopic procedures and reflected on what I could have done better (lots). But it is much more than just how you actually do the procedure, Bighospital is not short of competent and talented technicians who do a great operation but they don’t run their theatre efficiently or have a happy team. 

There are several global areas where you must perform. Firstly, your aim is the execution of an operation that proceeds at an appropriate pace with economy of movement and is as skilled a job as possible. This means that you do a good theatre brief, that intraoperatively you ask for things well in advance of needing them (staplers, meshes etc.) so you don’t have any pauses waiting for kit. That you minimise errors, anticipate the anatomy and respond and adapt your technique according to the conditions. 

Visualisation of a procedure is very helpful preoperatively, which can be done whilst washing your hands pre surgery or a more detailed preparation outside the theatre if the case or your ability demands is also helpful. You need a plan and a back up plan and a bail out plan. 

Then there is the need for good communication with anaesthetic and nursing colleagues, they shouldn’t have to be psychologists to work out from your body language how the operation is progressing. One of my anaesthetic friends teaches her senior trainees how to read the body language of the most personality disordered of us all. How sad that it is necessary to rely on these non-verbal clues when this individual could just say “We are struggling here, its going to take a bit longer”. 

When it gets difficult or bloody, or bloody difficult you need to articulate that and communicate to the room. Nurses are not mind readers, and terseness and unpleasantness towards them is unacceptable and is a reflection of your failure to communicate adequately. A bold statement for a surgeon to make but very true. 

You want to make sure your assistant is happy, that they eat, visit the toilet and are trained (it is unusual for a surgical Registrar to finish a day in theatre having achieved these four goals). On the day you want to start on time, finish on time and you do not overbook lists giving your team undue pressure. 

I have been very quiet on this blog recently, I am counting the days to not being a trainee anymore and the weight of the responsibility of independent work is weighing on my shoulders. Every anastomosis, every closure of a midline wound, every possible readmission, every single damn thing I do is my responsibility and the complications that are going to start coming any minute now as they leave me to do almost everything alone, are weighing on my mind. I’ve waited longer than anyone else for this, all those maternity leaves, all that watching and learning and waiting and thinking and now I’m scared I might be shit at it. I might crumble under the pressure. I might turn into a horrible person. I might get a reputation for laziness, for being slow, for being rubbish in theatre, for calling for help all the time, for not calling for help when I should, for getting the most complaints, the most leaks, the most deaths. I might get an anaesthetist who hates me, I might hate them. There are so many ways to fail. 

Reflecting on over twenty years of training and preparing and learning, I have learned a lot, I am a patchwork of other people and like a child I bear the DNA of my surgical “parents”. Hopefully I have taken the best bits of them, because my time is up. 




Make sushi not rice 

It takes 7 years of cooking rice before a sushi chef gets his hands on the fish. 

Replace rice with “appendixes, abscesses, hernias, manual evacuations” and fish with “major cancer resection” and you have the model of surgical training we are all labouring through. 

My kids can make half decent sushi, but they can’t make rice. It’s about the training! 

Make sushi, not rice. It’s my new training motto. 

Spot on John Humphrys; that’s how I feel too

Spot on John Humphrys; that’s how I feel too

The lovely, clever and doggedly determined John Humphrys is the man who wakes me up in the morning. I was sad to read in yesterday’s Sunday Times that he is contemplating retiring soon, although the rest of the Today programme presenters are also first class and I enjoy listening to them all. I like to imagine that if I met them in the pub I would get to hang out with them and join in their clever and amusing chat; they would probably not want to hang out with me though, when they discovered I couldn’t define Keynesian economics and sometimes get muddled between gross and net pay.

Anyway, John Humphrys is quoted as saying;

“Sometimes the programme they present you with at 4am is just absolutely brilliant and you think, ‘Wow’. But mostly it’s not. So you have a moan and a whinge and then after half an hour you think, ‘Actually, I am bloody lucky doing this’. Most mornings at some point I think ‘God this is fun’. Don’t tell them but I would do it for nothing.”

And that is what my job is like, that is what other people don’t get when they say to me “I don’t know why anyone would be a doctor nowadays”. Good, I am glad you don’t, it is because it is often the most marvellous fun.


Some of the Today show presenters, which I think my work colleagues are a bit like, but we know about surgery… as opposed to knowing about everything. 


Reading between the lines 

Reading between the lines 

We do not always mean what we say…

To the anaesthetic team 

“I think they moved/coughed” 

They most definitely did move or cough. 

“Are they relaxed?”

They are not relaxed 

“We still have to close, are they relaxed?”

Right, I’ve been at this for 4 hours and now, in the final five minutes, you have let the paralysis wear off. You’ve had your lunch and several coffees and you’ve spent all day texting and emailing someone (fucking theatre bloody wifi) so you WILL paralyse them so I can finish and I don’t care that you will then be stuck here for 20 minutes until you can wake them up again. 

“Is it possible that they aren’t fully relaxed yet”

I saw you pretend to paralyse them, that wasn’t sux, that was saline.

“This is a bit more difficult than we thought”

This has the potential to turn into a total disaster and some lack of foresight on my part is now quite clear to me, which is doubly disappointing. 

“We have got rather a lot of bleeding here at our end”

There is a massive black pool of blood that is sucking at our sleeves and seems unstoppable. You should prepare yourself for some drama. 

“Would you please be so kind as to fill in the frozen section request path form/intraoperative cholangiogram request”

My registrar should have done this and she hasn’t. She knows this is a terrible and shameful error. I won’t look at her, you look at her for me and then sigh. She will then know that she is a disgrace and we are aware of her incompetence. 

“We will be done in 40 minutes”

An hour and a half. 

“We are nearly done”

We have reached half way. 

“It’s absolutely imperative that we get into emergency theatre next” 

I want to go home before midnight, fuck the urologists and their stents. 

“The anastomosis was perfect, they leaked because they had a low blood pressure”

From your completely unnecessary epidural. 

“Yes, I think we have a sample, certainly  they should have been grouped and saved”

I have no idea if they have been or not but we both know they should have been, in 3 minutes I’ll be scrubbed and sterile, so I’m not going to check. You can do it. 

“As far as I am aware of, no, I don’t think that they are on anticoagulants”

I have no idea if they are or not and I don’t massively care because they need an operation right now for their dead/perforated guts. 

“It will only take me an hour”

It will take an hour to do the bit I consider  most difficult. Total operating time is about 2 hours. 

To the scrub nurse

“The usual stitch I use here”

I don’t remember what I use here, give me what someone else uses here.  

“I did give you back the swab from inside”

Not sure. I want to carry on closing. 

“Yes I will need more wash”

Don’t roll your eyes at me, go and get the wash

“These needle holders are unusable”

I am stressed and want something nice to hold 

“This is broken, send it back”

I have broken this. 

“This wash is too cold”

For fuck sake, can’t you give me warm saline 

“Can I have a bit of quiet please in theatre just now”

Shut up, this is hard. 

To your assistant 

“Can you pull a bit harder please?”

You puny little shit. I held onto a Lloyd Davies for 7 hours once. 7 hours!!!

“Whoa! Watch the spleen. Your hands are a bit too rough”

They are like shovels, you useless lump. You should be a bricklayer. 

“Did you tie that properly. That is the IMA, are you sure you tied it right?”

I’ll kill you if they bleed post op. I will exsanguinate you, slowly

“are you ok to close?”

I’ve had enough. 

“Show me that properly and nicely”

You have no idea what I am doing here. 

“What’s that big vein there?”

If you answer this correctly you can take over. If you don’t know then you will only be closing the skin.