In my final year of medical school, as part of the surgery rotation I spent four weeks on the Pediatric Surgery service. It was a relatively light assignment, at least compared to the other surgical specialties and we spent a fair amount of time just reading in the library. Most of the work was done by the surgeons and the surgical fellows. The medical students did, however, on occasion go to the OR and sometimes we were allowed to scrub in and assist. This usually meant holding a retractor and standing uncomfortably for hours on end watching the surgeon finesse his way around the body. I remember we were in there once, operating on a choledochal cyst. I was scrubbed in with the division chief, a tall and fastidious Punjabi doctor who worked like an artisan and spoke with a thick rustic accent. It was a long procedure and about two or three hours into the surgery, Dr Chaudhry looked up at me and asked, "So, do you want to be a pediatric surgeon when you grow up?"
My back was hurting, my arms were cramped and the hot air from my breathing kept fogging up my glasses. No, I did not want to be a surgeon.
"No, sir, not at all," I told him.
He stopped what he was doing and looked at me. A few seconds later I saw a smile break out behind his mask.
"So what do you want to do, son?"
"I want to be a pediatrician," I informed him.
"Good choice," he said. "I wish you good luck."
We continued dissecting out the cyst. He was one of the rare surgeons who didn't play music while they worked. Dr Chaudhry preferred operating in silence and while we worked it was only the clatter of the instruments that broke the monotonous pace of his hands dissecting through the abdomen.
"You know, Dr Siddiqui," he said, addressing the anesthesiologist, "when I was young there was no school in our village. I spent the first few years of my life just playing in the fields.
"My family were landowners and I spent the day herding cattle or roaming around our orchards. In the summer, we would sit under a tree and eat mangoes chilled on ice. Then one day my grandfather decided I had had enough loitering around and that it was time for me to go to school."
"He took me to the next village which was bigger than ours and had a school and handed me to the schoolmaster. "Teach him something, sir," my grandfather asked him."
"For my school fees he brought sweets, fruits, cannisters of desi ghee and a cow," Dr Chaudhry said. "How much tuition do you pay now?"
I told him.
"You should have gone to school back then," he chuckled. "There, almost done"
He had begun to stitch up the abdomen. Emboldened by his sudden friendliness, I asked if I could close the belly.
"No, I don't think so," he said and went back to his meticulous work.