Dr. Emil: "I call patient care the bookends of medicine"


When did you realize you wanted to be a doctor, or work in the medical field? I only realized it midway through my undergraduate degree in engineering. Both my parents are physicians and I was an only child, so for everybody, it was obvious I’d become a doctor too one day. I didn’t like that. It was as if it was predestined, and I had no say. But then I realized that engineering was not for me. I liked human interaction, I liked intensity. So I finished my engineering studies then went into medicine thinking I’d become a pediatrician. But I found in pediatric surgery the best of both worlds, combining my love for people, especially kids, and my interests in technical issues and problem-solving that come from my engineering background. I guess sometimes you shouldn’t try to fight destiny! So had you not become a Doctor, you would have been an engineer? No! Really, I don’t think I would have! I am not a technician. Even the business aspect of engineering didn’t appeal to me. I would probably have gone into teaching, maybe political science or something of the sort where there is a lot of give and take. If you were forced to choose between teaching, research, patient care or learning. What would you choose? Patient care, no doubt. For me, medicine starts and ends with the patient. I call patient care the bookends of medicine. Everything else, research, teaching, administration, planning, is in the middle. And if we don’t always focus on the patient, if the bookends are not solid, then everything else falls apart.

You have volunteered 6 times in Africa. Why do you choose to do that? Some of it is the legacy of my own childhood where my parents worked in Nigeria as physicians and they were doing everything there, as they were the only doctors for a huge community. So that has left an impression on me. I go to Africa because it charges my batteries: it reminds me of the fundamental principal of medicine and surgery: to serve. Last March, I operated on the Africa Mercy, a hospital ship that was docked in Madagascar. It was just about working as a team, taking care of children who have no other options available to them. That environment recharges me. I’ll be going back next January. Do you have a ritual before you go into the operating room? I pray. It is humbling to be a pediatric surgeon. Think of it: there’s only one thing in life that requires more trust than you surrendering yourself to surgery, and that is surrendering your kid. I do not take that responsibility lightly, so I pray asking God to be with me every day and for every case. What has working closely with families taught you? How forgiving and how strong they are. I always tell the students and residents, “you get close to the families whose children you save; but you get even closer to the parents whose kids you’ve lost.” I see parents go through the mourning and recovery. It’s a great lesson of humility, to not take life for granted. I cannot understand where all this strength comes from. I, as a father, don’t know if I would have that kind of strength. It’s a daily lesson, and one that never gets old. If you were offered one super power, any power, what would it be? I really think I have been given the gift of the power to heal. What else is more important than that?! What do you hope people will remember you for? It’s a question a lot of surgeons struggle with. We sacrifice so much of our own personal life. I started practicing pediatric surgery at 36 years old because my training lasted 17 years. Despite all that investment, what are the odds I’ll go down in history for doing something truly innovative, unique? Let’s be frank, there’s only a handful of those kind of physicians. My legacy, I hope, is with the patients that I will have touched. One little patient at a time, one little legacy at a time.