A recent study on hungover surgeons suggests that they are slower and sloppier after a night on the town. Get them toasted, let them sleep it off and they can’t perform surgery on par the next day. Not surprising findings, given the physical and mental demands of many surgeries. But quite alarming for patients who will quickly forgive a heart surgeon for having a terrible personality, but expect and demand that a surgeon be at the top of their game when operating.
Study of Sloshed Surgeons
Eight experienced surgeons and a bunch of medical students were treated to dinner in a restaurant and were instructed to drink until they felt intoxicated. They were then driven home and picked up again the next morning. Brought to a laboratory, they performed virtual reality (fake) surgeries at 9am, 1pm and 4pm. At 1pm, their skills were the worst, but at all three time points, they performed simulated surgeries below baseline, even though they were technically sober at the time of testing. So, surgeons are people too. The problem is that they wield scalpels.
As a microsurgeon, I shuttered when I read this study. It violates the mantra of centeredness that many of us adhere to religiously in practicing such a high art. And although any surgery can be challenging and take years to master, microsurgery places a unique demand on the surgeon: to fix things that are utterly invisible to the naked eye.
The Microcosm of Microsurgery
How demanding is microsurgery? Demanding enough that you would certainly not want your microsurgeon to rave all night before your procedure. In vasectomy reversal surgery, we routinely reconnect tubes that are less than 1/10th of a millimeter in size, slightly bigger than the absolute limit of human hand-eye coordination. For perspective, here are a variety of other dimensions in this subatomic universe:
- Thickness, credit card 0.76 mm
- Diameter, human egg 0.12 mm
- Diameter, average human hair 0.1 mm
- Diameter, human vas deferens opening 0.1 mm
- Average thickness, plain sheet of paper 0.09 mm
- Length, human sperm cell tail 0.04 mm
- Limit of human motion 0.03 mm
- Wavelength of light emitted by a carbon dioxide laser 0.0011 mm
What’s the Surgeon’s Secret?
The secret of expert surgeons is the same as that of any Olympic-caliber athlete. Natural skill and experience are assumed. If your outstretched hand has a visible tremor, you should probably avoid microsurgery. More importantly, however, are consistency and discipline, which are the true hobgoblins of great surgeons. With this Tao in mind, drinking binges are unacceptable for a master surgeon. Regarding coffee, its allowed, but just drink the same amount every day. Stay consistent. Play sports and keep fit but don’t expect to be Picasso if you’ve thrown a shoulder, your back or sprained a finger-playing ball. Pain diverts critical mental and neuromuscular energy away from the task at hand. Best to heed the words of Aristotle on this: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence… is not an act, but a habit.”
But should we define recommendations for alcohol use by surgeons before procedures as the study authors suggest? Fine with me. But what about pilots, school bus drivers and cabbies, to name a few other professions, who also take other’s lives in their hands?