If your approach to life involves lots of variety and a high level of adrenaline, you might be just the kind of person who makes a good general surgeon. Other surgeons usually specialize in a relatively narrow range of procedures, but general surgeons get a little bit of everything. It's also an up-tempo career, where you can often expect to run out of hours before you run out of work.
Planning and Preliminaries
Each day of your career as a general surgeon requires a certain amount of planning and preliminary work. You might meet with patients who are due for surgery, to perform an examination, discuss the procedure and explain any potential after-effects. In some cases you might order X-rays or MRIs to help assess the problem area and decide how you'll approach it. Checking your schedule for the next few days is always a good idea, so you'll know what's on your plate and whether you need to make any special preparations.
Of course, a lot of what you'll do is surgery. General surgeons typically perform procedures of the digestive tract, breasts, the abdomen and internal organs, surgeries of the veins and major glands, and the removal of cysts and cancerous tumors. A normal day's work might include removing a cyst from an ovary, repairing a hernia, or taking out an appendix. If you work in an outlying area where specialized surgeons are unavailable, you might also act as a trauma surgeon in the local emergency room, treating victims of accidents or violence.
Remaining a generalist will bring you the widest possible variety of cases, but sometimes it's worth your while to specialize a little. General surgeons can become board-certified in minimally invasive surgery, for example, using miniature instruments and tiny incisions to make repairs. Other subspecialties include vascular surgery, pediatric surgery, colorectal surgery and hand surgery. A few, such as cardiothoracic surgery, are highly specialized and require extensive additional training. You'll give up a lot of general surgery's variety when you specialize, but specialists tend to make more money.
Becoming a surgeon shouldn't be a snap decision, because you have to invest a big chunk of your life in the training. It starts with eight years in college, four in an undergraduate program, and four in medical or osteopathic school. After you graduate, you have to get into a highly competitive general surgery residency. Those last for five years, and you'll spend that time learning surgical skills and techniques from experienced practitioners. After your residency, you can take the board certification exams in general surgery. If you want to specialize, you'll spend another one to three years in a training fellowship and then take another board certification exam.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.