Surgeons and Priests

Then and now:

Mankind had no great medicine, it was a mystery – disease and health. That mystery begat the priests whose incantations called upon spirits to cure. The patient would be in a trance, the priests in their vestments, with the promise of transforming the person – the stories, of the angel touching Jacob and making him different when he woke.

Now we have medicine, but for many it is still a mystery. We put the patient in a deep sleep – anesthesia. We have our holy garments – surgical scrubs. We bring them into the holiest of holies – the operating room, and the patient awakes and has been transformed.

The herbs have been purified, dosages determined, and from here we fight disease.

Today before bringing a patient to the operating room she prayed with her sister. I appreciate it when patients call upon a mystical being to guide our hands. But for surgeons, Prayer is preparation – and for surgeons we spend more time before surgery contemplating what we will do – we prepare for every operation. Some think this moment of silence is us calling on a spiritual being- but for us it is a time to calm, to think, to rest – and then to act.

No wonder so many find the old ways, of prayers, herbs, incantations, and mystery to be at odds with modern medicine. It is easier to understand those old ways, when the complexity of science and critical thinking is difficult. But surgery, and medicine have thankfully evolved- requiring years of study, apprenticeship, but what we can never lose is our empathy for those who entrust us with their lives as their bodies submit to anesthesia and the surgical scalpel.

One of my favorite paintings by Joe Wilder – a surgeon’s contemplation before surgery – I have this in my office

We are humbled by the body, because even the best of medicine, the best of preparation, the most careful handling of our patient’s tissues may not be enough. Surgeon’s know this – and when we lose a patient, there is no greater solace than in the company of fellow surgeons who know that every lose is carried with us. It is with them that we go over every stitch, every medicine, every touch of that patient – trying to find out what we can do better next time- but too often that mystery is beyond our comprehension.

When, in discussions with those whose belief is for the old ways, or for quackery, we surgeons remind ourselves that we don’t have the answers. But the beauty of surgery is no amount of homeopathy, chiropractic, or herbs will mend a wound or drain pus, or re-grow an amputated limb.

We are the modern day priests – we prepare, we change to our holy garments, we bring patients to another world, and we change them.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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  1. Lynn says:

    My religion (Judaism) teaches that all doctors have an angel assigned to them who guides them and assists them in healing their patients. The great Rabbi Maimonides was a physician and had an oath for medical school graduates.
    If we look at the hospitals in most cities, they have names like Sinai, Methodist, National Jewish, and all types of saints. Many hospitals started as religious charitable institutions for the sick. Some Jewish hospitals were a way for Jews to train as doctors when antisemitism prevented them from getting into medical schools. Eventually many nice Jewish boys aspired to be doctors and many nice Jewish girls aspired to marry them until the feminist movement made medicine a good choice of a career for women.
    In many hospitals, there are chaplains who make the rounds to pray with the sick for healing. To believers, this brings Divine protection and to non-believers, the patients need to pray to feel less nervous. Sometimes sickness makes believers out of atheists.

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