July 2009

Full Throttle

Fueled by devotion and caffeine, wunderkind surgical resident Dr. Carla Haack is driven to heal.
Photographs by Matt Moyer; text by Thomas Lake

Dr. Carla Haack works for $11.30 an hour, sometimes less, except for the times she works for free: the other night, for example, when she stood at the counter of Einstein Bros. Bagels in her turquoise scrubs, waiting for her order, and she heard two clerks discussing an oncoming cold.

You need ginger tea, she told the sick woman, unsolicited.

The woman pointed to a stack of tea boxes on the counter, as if to say, Like this?  [Story continues below ↓]

No no no, the doctor said. Go to the store and buy some fresh ginger root. Cut it up. Mash it up. Boil it down. Throw in a little honey. Drink it up. You’ll sweat out the virus.

“I guess I’m always in character as a surgeon,” Dr. Haack, a third-year surgical resident through Emory University at Grady Health System, said a minute later. “Because it’s all I do.”

This is nearly true; her work schedule calls for up to eighty hours a week, and the work gets into her arteries and her neurons, so that she thinks about it when she closes her eyes, because even when the Allis clamps and the Mayo scissors are put away there is always one more kind word she could have said, one more hug she could have doled out, one more stream of endorphins she could have released.

Her workday begins at 5 a.m. with a long pull of orange Full Throttle Fury, the waves of caffeine and sucrose boosting her natural hyperactivity. She will wait until the caffeine wears off before going into her surgery, because it puts a tremor in her hands. They are the smallest hands in the department, with oddly long fingers, which can be an advantage because they fit in smaller crevices.

Dr. Haack has had other advantages along the way: a father whose SkyMiles enabled her family to travel the world, and a bilingual Puerto Rican mother who home-schooled her daughters on these travels, enabling young Carla to finish high school at fifteen, college at nineteen, medical school at twenty-three. She is twenty-six now, exceptionally young for a third-year resident, an apprentice surgeon, or, as she puts it, low man on the totem pole, flying on the coattails of masters. She tries to learn from everyone, including the veteran nurses and especially the scrub technicians, who, when she puts her hand out in the surgery room, always supply the correct instrument, or sometimes the monocryl suture, which is like fishing line and which she uses to weave skin back together with dissolving stitches that hide just under the epidermis.

There are three simple rules in surgery, she says: Eat when you can, sleep when you can, and don’t mess with the pancreas. When she misses lunch, she finds herself in the gift shop, buying Smartfood and peanut M&M’s. For all this, Dr. Carla Haack earns $47,000 a year.

“It’s more than enough for my life,” she says. “I don’t have time to spend money.”

Besides, she enjoys it.

“When you’re a surgeon, you live for the time you spend in the operating room.”

“To actually do something with your hands and fix somebody—there’s a very intense sense of gratification.”

Dr. Haack admits she is not the most efficient of surgeons. She spends a lot of time talking to her patients and listening to their stories. Still, she considers it one more form of caregiving.

“It makes me feel a lot better,” she says, “when I walk into a patient’s room and they’re happy to see me.”