Person of the Week

Hugh Bartlett

General Surgeon

For those who are searching, if you are truly searching, something will come to you and it will be very clear. Pursue your mission.  You’ve been chosen for it.  Don’t turn your back on it.

1.  What led you to the mission of being a general surgeon?

Well, it’s probably multifactorial.  I am the fourth generation of Bartlett general surgeons.  My great grandfather was a surgeon in the Civil War in Illinois.  My grandfather was a surgeon in St. Louis as was my father and my uncle.  So there’s some history and I’m sure that had something to do with it.  I didn’t follow my father around; I didn’t go to the hospital with him a great deal.  I remember the eighth grade somebody asked me the question, “What do you want to be in life?”  I answered without hesitation, “I want to be a surgeon.  I want to be a general surgeon.  I knew then exactly what I wanted to do and I never seriously deviated from that path.  It has always been a mystery to me, “Why me?”  I have two brothers and a sister; none had anything to do with medicine.  I always felt I had this calling.  It was what I wanted to do desperately.  It’s the only thing I ever considered.

As I looked ahead in my life, as much as I could at that age, I couldn’t see anything else for me that even remotely attracted me.  I felt in later years that this was my mission.  I was given certain talents that lent themselves to this and for me to have done anything else, I just could never have conceived of it.  I would see contemporaries of mine doing other things and tried to imagine myself in their role and couldn’t begin to.  Many of my classmates graduated from college with the question on their lips, “Now what do I do?”  But that never was a problem for me.  In that regard I consider myself extremely fortunate.

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

It’s first of all a healing mission.  Surgery is a manual task, and yet I’ve never been particularly dexterous.  I don’t wood carve, I don’t paint, I can scarcely draw a straight line.  I was never good at art, and yet I remember the first time a scalpel was put in my hand, I knew what to do with it — especially after years of observation and assisting others.  I always did have good hands in the operating room.  People made that observation throughout the years and in different places.  I don’t think they were just trying to impress me.  I could get things done.  I could get them done swiftly and with accuracy.  It was nothing that I am terribly proud of; it was just given to me.

3.  What was your best day as a general surgeon?

That’s very hard.  I had been practicing early on and a woman came in and in terrible straits.  She had no family with her.  I took her to the operating room after appropriate measures and did a simple procedure.  She recovered very rapidly.  I came in to discharge her.  She gulped and said, “Dr. Bartlett, I have no way to pay you.”  She was sitting on the side of the bed, dressed as though nothing had ever happened and in a very short while after being so sick.  I said, “Well, I think your recovery will be payment enough. Don’t worry about it.  Go your way.”  As I was walking out of the room, I thought to myself, “Your practice is barely breaking even, what in the heck are you doing?”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut.  I kept on walking.  I had done the right thing.  I look back on that and feel proud of myself.  It was the first time that ever happened.  It wasn’t the last time, but it sticks in my mind somehow.

I think it soon gave me a much higher opinion of myself.  I am an alcoholic.  At that time in my career, I was pursuing my disease with vigor – in spite of everything the alcoholism was doing to my family and my medical practice, spiritual life, social life – every part of my life.  I didn’t have a very high opinion of myself.  So it was a moment when I felt good about myself, and what I was doing – realizing I hadn’t transgressed all the boundaries that I had been taught since childhood.

I have been given release from that disease.  I went to a lot of meetings and treatments.  The grace of God gave me sobriety.  They say that the disease of alcoholism only teaches you one thing and that is how to be afraid.  That’s absolutely true.  To live in fear because of something that you know is killing you through denial.  That’s awful.  You can’t stand that forever.  Most people die of this disease, but I was one in the small percentage that did not.  For that I am grateful.

4.  What was your worst day as a general surgeon?

I have too many to count.  Too many lives lost.  Too many times when you have done all you can do and you knew you were simply through and you had to step back and say, “Well, I’m sorry but I just can’t do any more.”  Every physician faces that moment repeatedly.   If you are taking care of sick people, you do.  I always thought it was very important to be perfectly straight with my patients, to comfort them, to be honest with them, and when medical science had reached its limits to say so and not keep dragging people back to my office because they were still alive.  I think the present impetus to get people out of hospitals so they can die at home with their families — if that is their wish is very important and long overdue. That is one thing that I feel strongly about.

A number of patients’ families would say, “Now don’t tell mom.  She’s not strong enough to handle that kind of information.”  I always replied, “Now that is nonsense.”  I never regretted that approach.  Every human being has the right to respect human dignity and that’s a part of it, accepting your own mortality.

There are many memories that I revisit in the middle of the night that keep me awake.   They haunt me, as I’m sure they do every surgeon.  There might be something else you could have done or could have done better.  I think people in this position that don’t think that are really fooling themselves. God is the author of my gifts.  He didn’t ask me to be perfect.  He asked me to do the best I could.  That’s what I always tried to do. That entails keeping up to steam, keeping your self educated and current on medical advances.  That’s part of doing your best.  I didn’t graduate from medical school to sit back and let the money come in.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

I turned to all of my sources of strength.  That is something I learned in AA.  Chief among them are my Creator and those who are closest to me like my wife and a couple of physicians who are very good friends.  I leaned on them, I cried out to them.   What else can you do?

For those who are searching, if you are truly searching, something will come to you and it will be very clear.  Depending on your personality, you may struggle against it and start counting all the ways that you can’t possibly do what’s not open to you.  All I can say is just discourage those attempts.  Discount them.  Pursue your mission.  You’ve been chosen for it.  Don’t turn your back on it.