What Firefighting Taught Me About Integrity

Before I was a surgeon, I was a firefighter. I learned many things from my first profession, including how to change the oil on a fire engine!  But one of the most important lessons that I still carry with me today and use daily as a surgeon concerns the relationship between personal integrity and patient safety.

I became a firefighter for the California Department of Forestry at the age of eighteen. My first profession was something of a necessity for me. I was an academically gifted student and did well in high school earning several scholarships to attend college. Unfortunately, there still wasn’t enough money to cover the costs of my education. Working for the California Department of Forestry during the summers seemed like a good option: I could earn sufficient money to pay for my education at the University of California, Davis and could serve the state of California through my work during the summer.

To earn my certification, I attended a fire academy where there was a strict schedule of physical training as well as classroom work. Each day recruits were dismissed if they failed any of that day’s tests and activities. A typical day for me would include three hours of lectures with written testing in the morning to be followed by a six mile run in full protective gear. After lunch, we would work in teams with the fire engines and hoses, learning how to connect and lay out firehose in order to fight a wild fire or a structure fire. We would finish our day by pulling 100 feet of charged (100 pounds psi) cotton double jacket 1 3/4  diameter inch hose by ourselves within a five minute time span. To say that the work was physically and emotionally exhausting is an understatement.

Some of my co-candidates looked for easier ways to pass the rigorous examination process since it was so difficult. Some tried cheating on exams by sharing answers. Others tried cheating on the physical tests by taking shortcuts on the long runs. In the end, all of the cheaters were caught. Our final examinations involved working in teams and this is where the shortcuts some had taken demonstrated itself for all to see. Those who had cheated on written exams did not know the names of the various types of connections required for laying firehose and could not hook up hose to fire hydrants or engines. Those who cheated by running shorter courses did not have the physical stamina to complete the required group testing and physically collapsed after twenty minutes or so.

I learned from these early experiences that integrity was critical to not only becoming a technically proficient firefighter but was also important for developing endurance and character. I learned that the lives of others depended not only on my actions but also on my character and attitude.

Integrity is paramount in surgical care. Patients and their families rely on me to provide a safe environment for them or their loved ones when they ask me to be their oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Safety includes not only technical excellence but also a culture of honesty within the practice as well as an attitude of service.

We prioritize a culture of safety at Geisler OMS. The practice emergency drills that I run in my facility allow for all members of my team to learn how to work together and communicate more effectively in an emergency.  Our drills with our emergency medical team in Lake Oswego allow for feedback when we invite them into our facility for inspections. Finally, the safe surgery checklists that I have developed and are run by my staff hold me accountable at surgery for the procedures that I am performing as well as the anesthetics I am administering.

I have learned from being both a firefighter and a surgeon that there are no shortcuts to excellence but tremendous joy in knowing that you have honestly and humbly served another.

 

 

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