"There is a god; but it is not me"

“We lead the lives we do today because of your professional ancestors,” said Lawrence D. Dorr, MD, “and the lives of your heirs will be even better because of your contributions.”

Speaking at the first annual New Members Luncheon, Dr. Dorr stressed that members of the incoming AAOS class should understand their place in medical history.

Lawrence D. Dorr, MD

A sense of history
“One hundred years ago, a baby had a 50 percent chance of dying,” he explained. “In 1900, the life expectancy was 47 years. Tuberculosis (TB) was the biggest killer of man through all history until 1950. As doctors learned how to help the immune system, vaccines were developed for diphtheria, typhoid, and tetanus, and public health changes resulted in clean water and clean milk, cholera and typhoid were basically eliminated, and the incidence of TB slowed. Within 20 years, infant mortality decreased from 50 percent to 10 percent. Today, life expectancy is near 80.”

Although the history of medicine is largely one of success, Dr. Dorr urged those in attendance to remember that failure is part of every success story.

“When I walk out of the operating room and I’ve done a good job, I feel a great sense of achievement,” he said. “When I have a satisfied patient, it’s even better than money. Those are the rewards we seek, but in fact, to really be successful in practice, you have to learn how to handle failure.

“We have failures because we take risks. If you’re going to live a meaningful life, you have to take risks.”

To make his point, Dr. Dorr quoted Teddy Roosevelt, who, he remarked, said it best:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

This is a critical lesson for a medical career, Dr. Dorr said.

“It’s really easy as a young surgeon to get full of yourself,” he explained, “because you’re young and you’re about to achieve your dreams. Over my 30 years, there have been several times when I have been in the operating room and I’ve said to myself, ‘What am I doing here? How am I going to get out of this case?’ And I can tell you how I did get out and got a good result: yes, I had good training and yes, because I persisted in the face of adversity, but I can tell you, after the very first one, I thanked God.”

Perspective in the face of adversity
Dr. Dorr urged his audience to remember that in the face of successes and failures, and triumph over challenges, “There is a god; but it is not me.”

He pointed out that most physicians face a run of adversity. C. Walton Lillehei, MD—a pioneer of open heart surgery—lost seven straight pediatric patients over the course of a single summer. Although the University of Minnesota considered pulling his funding, Dr. Lillehei pressed on and eventually developed the heart and lung machine.

When facing difficulty, Dr. Dorr said that surgeons must make one of three choices:

“The worst choice is to no longer care,” he said. “If medicine ceases to be your why, then you need to walk away.

“A second choice is to live in that gray twilight. It’s really a fear of failure. I can assure you that doesn’t work. If you have a negative attitude, the pain is worse, and it intensifies your disappointment.

“The third choice is to gain moral certainty in your courage against adversity. Truth is one-third fact, one-third faith, and one-third illusion. You can do the best that you can do and work the hardest that you can work, and you will not always triumph. When I get discouraged, I think of Walt Lillehei.”

“The soul craves meaning”
“So I say to live your life with pride in your skills and your talents,” said Dr. Dorr, “but don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget who paved your way, and live with God as the wind beneath your wings.

“There is one glory in orthopaedics, one magnificent chance to get a reward for enduring checkered failures, and that is unconditional giving. Giving back better than you took. How do you repay God for your talents, or if you don’t believe in God, how do you repay society for the opportunity? Or how do you repay yourself?

“There are so many choices available,” he said. “The soul craves meaning. Meaning is doing something for somebody and never expecting to get anything in return. It may be volunteering your time as a teacher. It may be operating on a lady who is too poor to afford it, and seeing her walk and even dance again. When the precious gift that you give to someone is freedom from being crippled, you can feel meaning streaming through your soul.

“I am in the winter of my career, and you are in the spring. There will be lots of sunshine in your life, and I hope most of it shines on your relationships with your spouse and family. Storms may shake you, but if you face them with moral certainty, you will weather them, I promise you.”

This article was prepared by Peter Pollack, staff writer for AAOS Now.