"He is very patient," said a nurse on the floor, referring to one of the attending surgeons. Then, with a smile, she quickly revised her statement.

"Well, for a surgeon, anyway."

"For a surgeon." It is a qualifier I hear frequently around the hospital, implying that expectations are different – and perhaps lower – for some of us.

Jason Han is a cardiothoracic surgery resident at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jason Han is a cardiothoracic surgery resident at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Jason, are you sure you want to become a surgeon? You're just so calm – for a surgeon."

"Is she really in your program? She seems too nice to be a surgeon."

On the surface, the intent behind these remarks is humorous. Yet, upon further reflection, they betray a stereotype that has persisted, apparently since doctors first wielded scalpels.

The stereotype isn't all bad.

Every surgical resident aspires to the image of a supremely competent healer who displays unwavering commitment to saving lives.

Yet, like any stereotype, this one has its destructive side, potentially leading to distrust and discouraging diversity. Each day, our country grows more divided across racial, religious, political, and socioeconomic lines, reinforced by shallow and often false stereotypes.  The last thing we need is to perpetuate yet another one.

Yet this is a powerful one for surgeons in training, with puppeteer strings that are easy to miss as we juggle demanding schedules. Sometimes I catch myself trying to live up to my mental image of what it means to be a surgeon, or how a surgeon ought to act.

At times, these tendencies take me down the wrong path. For example, as much as we struggle to have some kind of life away from work, my colleagues and I sometimes try to one-up each other about who works the hardest and who is the toughest.

Most days I believe that I am not working hard enough – for a surgeon – while the reality is that all of us are working close to 80 hours a week.

The stereotype in surgery favors bravado over humility, confidence over caution. Surrounded by surgeons who seem to excel in every aspect without hesitation, trainees have a hard time showing signs of weakness or vulnerability even though the learning curve is steep and rapid.

Often, I feel no choice but to act tougher, more self-assured than I feel, knowing a "real" surgeon would push forward instead of doubting himself. A "real" surgeon would overcome anything.

That's where the stereotype loses out to reality.

No stereotype will ever be more authentic or accurate than the individuals who comprise the community this preformed notion purports to represent. A stereotype is imagined, preconceived, and able to be manipulated.

But each person actively defines what it means to be whatever they are – in my case,  a surgeon — each day. All of us have the capacity to shape the image of whatever group we are a part of by expressing our whole selves and defining the standard of our profession, group, and identity.

As medical professionals, we have the privilege and responsibility of remaining impartial healers. We are trained to avoid stereotyping patients in any way. Changing behavior or forming any judgment based on anything but observable, measurable facts is unacceptable.

Perhaps like no other, this generation of medical professionals will be unified by a common mission and language of healing, upholding the ideals of diversity and acceptance that is so vital to the health and well-being of our communities.

In this light, we need not – and would never want to — conform to a stereotype. Even changing the stereotype wouldn't represent the dynamic reality of our lives and professions. We must resist the temptation to give up what is real, out of fear of what is imagined.

Many of us are already engaged in addressing, instead of perpetuating, preconceived notions that divide our society and hold back our progress.

The stereotype of surgery as a male-dominated field for too long hindered talented women. Yet in recent decades, more and more women redefined what it means to be a surgeon. Now women comprise 30 percent of all applicants to surgical residency programs, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Their example challenges the stereotype to catch up with us, not the other way around.

Young people who say they want to change the world are too often dismissed by people who think it's impossible to affect something so huge and distant. However, one of the most powerful and meaningful ways to change the world is by refusing to let the world change us.

Each day – sometimes each hour — we face a choice to follow a prewritten script, or compose our own. Just by being true to ourselves, we can make our professions – and so much more – better places to be.

Jason Han, MD, is a resident in cardiothoracic surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.