Dr. Michael Meguid is an award-winning surgeon, researcher, author, and subject of the scripted drama podcast "Making the Cut: The (mostly) True Life Story of a Retired Surgeon." He is the founder and editor emeritus of Nutrition: The International Journal of Applied and Basic Nutritional Sciences and has published creative work in The Bennington Review, Columbia Medical Review, and others. Doximity asked Dr. Meguid about his life's work as a surgeon and researcher turned creative nonfiction writer and the 30-episode podcast about his life. You can listen to the first episode of "Making the Cut" here, and Ask Dr. Meguid Anything on Doximity from October 14 to 21 here.
Doximity: Let’s start with something fun: How is retirement treating you?
Dr. Michael Meguid: Amazing. There is life outside the operating room. I retired to care for my wife, who had developed frontal lobe dementia. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to stay inactive, I applied to several colleges for a writing program. Bennington College was close enough that I could manage my wife’s situation and still be “in residence” for the traditional two weeks per term. Literature opened the world to me. Two years later I was granted an MFA in Creative Writing. I haven’t stopped since. I also retained my editorship of Nutrition: The International Journal of Applied and Basic Nutritional Sciences, which I had founded 32 years previously. Now I’m editor emeritus, just to keep my hand in. But the bulk of my past eight years were directed to writing. So, "retirement" is indeed a fun yet a busy time. I haven't swum in my pool nearly as often as I wish.
Dox: Warm-up question on your experience as a surgeon: Do you have a “most memorable” surgical case?
MM: I used to tell my kids, "Imagine they pay me to have fun." I really love surgery so every operation was memorable. The one that perhaps takes the prize is a felon who shot two police officers at close range. In patient A, the entire abdominal wall and some of the organs, such as the colon, were liquified. I operated on him continuously for 18 hours and together with my team fixed his internal organs and recreated his thoracic and abdominal wall. He survived. His partner, patient B didn't. After 18 hours, my posture was frozen and I had to be laid down on the OR floor before I could move again and get up.
Dox: Now, let’s talk about the podcast, Making the Cut: The (mostly) True Life Story of a Retired Surgeon. I was really struck by your personal narrated introduction to the first episode of the show, in which you say: “There are two critical factors to establish a person’s self-identity, and they are place and parents. I had neither. This is my search for identity and belonging.” What was it like for you, emotionally, to embark on a creative project that really interrogates your most intimate self?
MM: One of my favorite quotes is that of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s only when you begin to explore an event from all sides that you can write about it. Examining one's life is intimidating, painful, yet enlightening. I am thankful to my editors for the psychological insights that encouraged me to go deeper into matters I would rather have avoided. And some of the revelations are surprising!
Dox: Do you feel you discovered the deeper sense of self you set out to find?
MM: I’m much closer to understanding myself. Writing and researching my family's past has helped me start the process of forgiving past grievances. It has also broadened my understanding of the forces that shaped those around me. Still, self-discovery is an ongoing process.
Dox: Even from the first episode of Making the Cut, the script doesn’t shy away from sharing a variety of memory landscapes from your early life. These include everything from heartrending instances of parental abuse and neglect to other sometimes harrowing events that can invoke feelings of shame, fear, and anger. Were you at all uncomfortable or nervous during the process of the show’s writing or broadcasting with airing such intimate details? How do you think the decision to include such details has influenced the way the audience interacts with the story?
MM: I was, very much so! It’s not easy to put your life in someone else’s hands, but 1C Productions and Rebeca Seitz, my writer/producer/director, did a great job of making my story into a podcast.
Dox: Having been “shuffled” throughout so many vastly different countries and cultures in your early life and young adult life seems to be a hugely formative part of your work. What was it like first coming to the U.S. to work in medicine? Are there things you wish more people knew about working in medicine in Europe versus in the U.S.?
MM: Anyone who has lived in different cultures has a leg up in understanding the world. I’m grateful to my parents that I can speak four languages and that I’ve seen much of the world. On the other hand, with my parents coming from such different cultures and not blending their differences in our home, I longed to belong somewhere. Finding new friends again and again and changing grades and school requirements was tough. Surgery became my “home.” Once I had the surgical letters after my name, I could belong anywhere I found another surgeon or doctor.
Dox: I read that at 16 years of age, your dream was to become a surgeon — and you did that, along with so many other impressive accomplishments. Your life’s work seems to vary widely, from pediatric surgery to surgical oncology and clinical nutrition. What was your motivation for studying and working not only in surgical specialties, but also in human nutrition and even behavioral neuroscience?
MM: Innovations in medicine happen at the bedside, in the lab, and at the bench. If I hoped to make a difference, I had to do the research that would help us to understand conditions. My primary interest was anorexia with illness. In cancer patients, the operation was generally a success but both pre- and post-operatively comprehensive nutrition was lacking. To understand the function of nutrition to the body, I attended Human Nutrition courses at MIT. In the mornings I was a graduate student at MIT in Cambridge. In the afternoon I was a professor of surgery operating at Boston City Hospital, while in the evening I operated on emergencies.
Dox: I’m sure many of our clinician members on Doximity, including medical students and residents, can relate to having to deal with a traumatic upbringing and other personal struggles while pursuing a very stressful career. Do you have any advice for medical students, residents, or trainees who are dealing with traumatic childhoods or other experiences similar to yours?
MM: The "get over it" process is futile. To find peace with yourself and the surrounding world the answer, I think, lies with having compassion for yourself and for your patients. Recovery takes time, introspection, and perhaps professional help.
Dox: Has the process of writing and producing the autobiographical podcast helped you find healing or closure in the past?
MM: Yes, most certainly. We always carry the scars of our youth. They don’t go away. Examining and writing about my past has made me face my own culpability on some issues and heal some of the festering open wounds inflicted by others.
Dox: If you had to describe what you want listeners to take away from your story in a sentence or two, what would that be?
MM: Remember everyone carries a burden. Forgive and be kind.
For more information about Dr. Michael Meguid, his work, and upcoming publications, please visit michaelmeguid.com.