Winnowing: Reflecting on Preconceptions About Surgeons Before My Procedure by Lailah Shima

Lailah Dainin Shima lives and writes in Wisconsin, where she’s a single mom of teenagers, an aspiring hospice chaplain, and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. She has also survived cancer, finding deeper healing every step of the way and doing her part to infuse medical worlds with poetry. Her poem      “Body of Wisdom”      appears in the Spring 2019 issue of the Intima.

Lailah Dainin Shima lives and writes in Wisconsin, where she’s a single mom of teenagers, an aspiring hospice chaplain, and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. She has also survived cancer, finding deeper healing every step of the way and doing her part to infuse medical worlds with poetry. Her poem “Body of Wisdom” appears in the Spring 2019 issue of the Intima.

To anticipate surgery, I learned before last year’s cystectomy, is to encounter popular caricatures of surgeons. “What’s the difference between God and a surgeon?” a nurse friend asked, quickly quipping, “God doesn’t imagine He’s a surgeon!” (implying, I finally understood, surgeons imagine they’re divine).

Everywhere, people scorned surgeons’ alleged arrogance and greed. Rarely did I see reflected my awe at the prospect of someone dissecting my body to help me heal. Where was recognition of the human connection in the heart of healing?

I wondered how the ridicule and resentment impacts surgeons, stoic though they seem. In his field notes, “Meaningfull,” Daniel Waters gives a pithy glimpse of his professional perspective, cataloguing “alternate but acceptable meanings” of surgeon.

Though striking a light tone, nodding to mockery of “wanton butchers,” physicians who think themselves “better and smarter than everyone else on the frickin’ planet,” “Meaningfull” intimates a tender undercurrent in one who “causes pain and suffering in the name of healing and somehow learns to live with it.”

Laying bare common assumptions, Waters displays patients and surgeons seemingly severed from each other. The former are anonymous people stabbed in their sleep, scarred for life. The latter appear detached, paradoxically alone in being granted this “most intimate contact with another human being” and alone praying they’re “doing the right thing.”

Blind acceptance of these conventional views likely constrains experiences of surgery, for all involved. Perhaps a remedy can be glimpsed in the operating light Waters shines, exposing the contrived nature of meanings layered upon surgeons.

That light, too, illuminates my poem “Body of Wisdom” which I’d thought explored one patient’s healing, unrelated to conventional medical discourse. After reading “Meaningful,” I remember the poem unfolded in response to my medical records, and see that it eludes linguistic contrivances slicing and dicing human experience.

While the “acceptable meanings of surgeon” isolate subject and object, the poem touches the essence of physician and patient, the healing current coursing through both. Wisdom flows as their deft bodies, as the widening space releasing obstructions. Whether or not sleeping patient or seemingly aloof surgeon is aware, the body of wisdom includes everything.

The conventional surgical discourse, with its disembodied sharp tools and minds acting upon fragmented maladies, apparently limits human connection and healing. Perhaps writing like Waters’ and mine can help winnow that discourse, freeing us all to abide in what remains: continuous flow of healing potential.


Lailah Dainin Shima lives and writes in Wisconsin, where she’s a single mom of teenagers, an aspiring hospice chaplain, and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. She has also survived cancer, finding deeper healing every step of the way and doing her part to infuse medical worlds with poetry. Her poems have appeared in CALYX Journal and various zines.


© 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine