When the Doctor Becomes a Patient: What I Learned from Having a Surgical Complication

It was supposed to be a simple procedure, taking less than an hour out of my day and a week away from work. Weeks later, I am back at work – not yet fully recovered but forever changed… for the better.

I had ptosis, or lid lowering, left eye worse than the right. I had noticed subtle changes over time, but in recent months, by the end of the day, my vision was blurred and my eyelids were tired. I started having headaches in the evenings after using my eyebrows all day to lift my eyelids up in order to see clearly. It’s genetic. I saw my dad’s eyelids lower throughout his life, and I knew I needed to take care of it sooner rather than later.

I did my research, found the right surgeon, and felt confident going into the procedure. Recovering was tough the first few days, with swelling, ice packs, and discomfort, but I knew after a week that my left eyelid was not recovering like my right – I couldn’t lift it at all.

At the postoperative follow-up visit, my doctor was obviously surprised. “I’ve never seen this” is not something you want to hear your surgeon say…ever. Long story short, the muscle in my eyelid was in shock from the procedure – there had either been significant swelling or a toxic reaction from the numbing medication used. An expected complication from this surgery. I was told it would most likely return to full function but that it could take 8-12 weeks.

It’s been a month now since my surgery, and I am starting to see some improvement in my lid function. I am hopeful for a full recovery, but I’ve been taking it one day at a time. I have to say that being in the role of the patient rather than the doctor role I’m used to has really changed my perspective, and I’m glad to say that I’ve learned a few things from the experience…

1.  I learned that complications can happen even if you do all the right things.

I did my research and found the right doctor with lots of experience and personal recommendations, and I still had a surgical complication, which goes to show that sometimes these things just happen. It surprised me how many people blamed the surgeon right away when I told them what happened, but complications can happen to anyone when they do enough surgeries. My procedure is one my surgeon had done thousands of times over the years, and we just both got really, really unlucky. I realized that if I blamed him, I would be left mad at myself for ‘choosing the wrong surgeon’ and angry at him when I knew he did his best. As a surgeon myself, I’ve had the same experience. When you do the same procedure thousands of times over several years, a complication is bound to arise sooner or later. Of course, while medical malpractice and negligence does happen, in most instances of surgical complications, I’ve found that this is not the case. Things just happen.

2.  I gained empathy for people with disabilities.

Even though it was temporary, I lost the ability to drive, work, and do many everyday tasks that I had always taken for granted. By coincidence, my daughter got her upper mouth expander during this time, and she had difficulty eating and speaking clearly with the new hardware. We went back to work and school for the first time on the same day and got to reflect together on how nervous we both were about seeing friends and colleagues with the new way we looked as well as returning to our responsibilities with limitations. Going through this together was an incredible opportunity to reflect on what it must be like for people with permanent disabilities, and we gained a new perspective together.

3.  I realized that people didn’t really care about how I looked.

My daughter said this to me on the first morning we went back to work and school, and I heard her saying these words to me in my head for the next few weeks while my lid kept drooping. It was tough at first to see patient after patient and explain why I looked different from the last time they saw me, but it got easier and easier, and the more comfortable I got with how I looked and what I said, the more comfortable everyone else did too. I also found comfort in humor. I told people to pretend I was just winking a lot and made a few pirate jokes. Breaking through the discomfort and ending in a laugh saved me daily. Laughter really is the best medicine for healing.

4.  I learned how to be more patient and understanding with my patients.

This is the best lesson I’ve learned from this experience. It is incredibly humbling to take on the patient role when I am usually the doctor. I felt what it was like to be scared of what may happen. I felt frustrated when I wanted to have my questions answered but couldn’t get ahold of someone quickly. I mixed up my medications! I took steroids to decrease the inflammation and help the healing process, and I mixed up the dosage a few days and had to ask my doctor for another prescription. I’ve had patients mix up medications and been bewildered since I had reviewed the dose with them and the instructions are on the bottle. Well, guess what – when you’re stressed out of your mind and scared about what might happen to your health, anyone can make a mistake – even a doctor. Back at work now, I find myself more patient with my patients’ questions and more understanding of their mistakes, and that is a true gift.

When my eyelid finally opened enough to allow me to drive and go back to work, I realized how incredibly fortunate I am to have my health. I try to practice gratitude in my life, but nothing makes you appreciate something more than when you lose it. Although I can’t say I’m glad it happened, upon reflection, I can honestly say I am grateful for all I learned from this experience. I cannot control what happens to me, but I can control how I react and what I take away from all my experiences, both good and bad.

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Published on HuffPost