Fail Better

20 Jun 2019

By Anne Mongiu

This unexpected invitation to write a post for AWS coincided with an equally unexpected phone call from my closest friend from medical school. She had resigned from her rather substantial clinical and academic appointments, and the conversation began with, “Anne, I’m a failure…”. I happen to have expertise in this area.

My first memorable taste of failure came in the 6th grade.  I scored 20 points lower than the 1200 needed on the SATs in order to spend the summer studying at Duke.  I was devastated. As an only child of two first generation Americans with little education and no financial resources, academic excellence was my ticket to a different future.  Up to that point, I had succeeded in school with little effort. But that failure marked the day that I began to truly study and prepare, knowing that my unseen competitors were formidable.

The next 25 years were filled with innumerable hours of hard work and sacrifice.  Scholarship to college, MSTP scholarship to earn my MD, PhD. I earned top marks, published papers, and ultimately fell in love with urology.  I matched into an excellent residency in Boston and planned to become a leader in the field.

Two years into my training, on a sunny Friday afternoon in May, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.  In an instant, my careful plans were rendered irrelevant. I took a leave of absence from training to get treatment – chemo, surgery, radiation, and more chemo.  Months blurred and I lost my sense of self, and subsequently, my partner of more than a decade. Exhausted, nauseated, and bald, my self-worth reached its nadir, and I decided to formally resign from residency.

My oncologist, an amazing woman and advocate, asked me to speak with the chair of surgery as I was finalizing my decision.  Kind and soft-spoken, he asked me if I still saw myself as a surgeon. When I answered yes, he graciously adopted me into their program.

What followed were the hardest six years of my life.  Surgical residency is challenging by itself. Recovering from treatment and rebuilding my life in a new specialty was particularly grueling (even with phenomenal co-residents and faculty).  I watched as the dreams of becoming a surgeon-scientist and department chair slipped from my grasp. Graduating from residency and fellowship, I smiled on the outside, but felt like an unmitigated failure to that younger version of myself on the inside.

As an attending, I have finally found the time to breathe again,  to have enough distance from the entire experience and to be able to reflect upon it properly.  Amidst the failure, I see success. I found my way back to complex pelvic surgery via colorectal surgery.  I have the unique insight that only comes from having been a cancer patient, which informs the way I care for my own patients today.  I landed a wonderful job, with excellent residents and medical students that I hope I can mentor wisely. More recently, I was voted to take charge of resident research, and last month I sat down to write my first grant since graduate school.  

Our failures do not define us.  They simply put detours in our path which invite us to try again.  This time, I’ll fail better.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

Dr. Mongiu is a board-certified general surgeon and fellowship trained Colon & Rectal surgeon (board certification underway) at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.  She received her MD & PhD (in Cell & Molecular Biology) from Northwestern University. She went on to complete her general surgery training at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and her fellowship in Colon & Rectal Surgery at the University of Louisville.  Her clinical interests are focused on colorectal oncology and the surgical management of IBD and pelvic floor disorders. Her research interests focus on robotic surgery education in general surgery residency and the role of the microbiome in combined pelvic floor disorders.  She and her husband David live in New York City with their rather personable Weimaraner named Rashi. You can find her on twitter at @akmongiu

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

3 Replies to “Fail Better”

  1. Absolutely need more of these types of editorials in the mainstream to teach todays youth…keep trying. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for sharing this and reminding us all that from start to finish our experience in life is in phases and layers and “fail better” is a message that should be shouted from the mountain tops. Thank you for sharing your personal very inspiring story. Perspective.

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