Surgery, Like Gymnastics, Feeds Her Love of Efficiency and Concrete Goals

It was still dark when Lisa Ferzoco, MD, entered a side door at New England Baptist Hospital. Three hernia patients were on her morning OR schedule.

“It bothered me that the first thing I said to each patient was ‘I’m so sorry we’re running late’,” Ferzoco recalled at the end of the day. Everything had been pushed back because of the emergency appendectomy assist that she gave to a colleague. “That was the hardest thing.”

Without exception, each patient, family by their bedside, took the news well. They love their surgeon like a family member. Her laugh. Her energy. The way she explains things.

These patients were more than willing to cut their surgeon some slack. “Don’t worry doc,” was one hernia patient’s response as Ferzoco left his pre-op bay. Then he called out to the people walking with her: “She’s the best; isn’t she great?”

What Lisa Ferzoco wants to be, though, is on schedule. She doesn’t like surprises, and for her, a good day in surgery runs on time with a team in the OR that acts like a team.

“The team works well together—the OR team and the surgeon—and works in unison. The OR team has a good understanding of what we’re doing through the day. Those things make for a good day in the operating room.”

Not to read too much into it, but Ferzoco received a lot of training in her past that applies to the unique soloist-and-team captain role of a modern surgeon. She was an elite gymnast from middle school to college. That meant gym after school for team practice, home for a snack, out to the gym for three or four more hours, homework at 11 o’clock, then “wake up and do it all over again, day after day after day.”

Is there a carryover for her from sports to the medical world? “Transitioning from that, it set up the discipline, in terms of working to achieve a goal. There was something you wanted to accomplish. How do you get into a structured, organized pathway? So I think that sets up a mental discipline and framework that carries through for the rest of your life.

“Sometimes you can think of an operation as being technically demanding like a sport...I wouldn’t compare it to athletics. But certainly you can’t settle for good enough. You have to be very precise and very focused, despite whatever else is going on around you. So that mental training certainly helps.”


Focus and Planning Extend to Personal Life Management

Ferzoco’s mental training and ability to focus is one of the keys to making her whole life work. She is the mother of four, ages 6–15. One of the reasons she likes general surgery at a hospital like the Baptist (where it’s typically elective) is the schedule, which usually allows her to do the things that non-surgeon mothers do.

Sometimes that means driving the car pool, and sometimes it means finding the right resources for home. Ferzoco credits her husband’s flexible schedule in a family fire safety and alarm business, and a mother-in-law and sister-in-law who live next door, with helping to keep things running smoothly. Even if it means lining up outside help.

“Coming home to a disaster of a house is probably stress as equal to me as what’s going on in the operating room, so I need help with that for sure.”

Her friends verify that cooking healthful food is a passion and a talent. She runs 20–25 miles a week, and recently trained with her 15-year-old son for a half-marathon. Vacations tend to involve sports too, such as yoga paddle boarding (without the hand-stands that her daughter executes effortlessly).

Ferzoco began her college career on a gymnastics scholarship as a physical education major. A growing interest in epidemiology led to a switch to public health, and then an illness in her family turned her toward medicine. Along the way, her interest in goal-setting and concrete results made surgery an attractive specialty.

“I like it because I can fix things. It’s very technically demanding. It’s measurable success. I can really impact one patient at a time. That patient who has a hernia that’s bothering him, I’m going to fix it. He’s going to wake up and he’s not going to have a hernia anymore. It’s different from, ‘I’m going to give you medicine for your blood pressure and you’re going to come back and we’re going to check your blood pressure three months from now and see how you’re doing.’”

Using Today's EMR Tools: Good Design is Key

Efficiency drew Ferzoco to surgery, and it also compelled her to jump into a project this year to improve the hospital’s electronic medical record (EMR). As the hospital computerizes the patient record, it needs to make the doctor’s tasks as simple and fast as possible.

She came from a system that had already achieved this, so her interest was heightened. She has to use the new EMR when it’s implemented, so she had a big interest in making it work for doctors. Ferzoco says the system they are replacing is more of a burden than an aid.

“Someone who is not trained could probably pick it up and use it fairly easily, but no matter how long you’ve been using it, you don’t get any faster at it because of the design issues. It’s silly things like the box is too small so you check it and you miss the box, so you have to check it again. Over here you click three times and over here you only have to click two times.”

No matter how effective the electronic medical record gets, the work of a surgeon remains inherently perilous. The very thing that provides the most satisfaction for Ferzoco—honoring the rare trust that patients place in her, and mending their bodies—can lead to other problems.


What Keeps Dr. Ferzoco up at Night?

What keeps her up at night? If she had a lot of surgeries and they went well, then nothing. She’s too tired. But if a patient is still sick or had complications, Ferzoco worries and calls the nurses overnight to check in.

Every evening, during the ride home from work, “I’m thinking about what I could have done better that day, how things could have run more smoothly, things that could have been done differently. A laundry list of things that I have to do when I get home.”

These days the top of that list includes studying hard for her boards. But somewhere, in between driving kids somewhere for something, might be a trip to the gym...and an evening date with the uneven parallel bars.

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