Interview by Chiemela Ohanele | Photos by Graham Perry
After scrubbing out of the OR, most surgeons don’t trade their blue scrubs for a fresh white suit covering every inch from head to toe. But most surgeons aren’t M. Sean Grady, MD, who uses that head-to-toe protection in pursuit of a sweet hobby. Outside of his work as chief of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine, Grady is an amateur beekeeper who keeps bees and collects their honey in Chester County, Pa.
Chiemela Ohanele, a pre-medical student and biology major at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke with Grady about his beekeeping, his interest in ecology, and how these outside interests relate to his work as a surgeon.
What inspired you to start beekeeping?
I have been interested in beekeeping for many years. I never pursued it until about four years ago, when my daughter said that it is time to start doing instead of just talking. So she got me Beekeeping for Dummies, and that's what started it.
I like beekeeping for very practical reasons. As a neurosurgeon, I don’t have a huge amount of free time. Beekeeping is not a huge time commitment. It’s about an hour a week if you do it as a hobby. Secondly, I think the biology of bees is fascinating—from the workings of a beehive and how bees find nectar, to how they communicate with the rest of the beehive about where to go. Nobel prizes have been won for this. I am also an ecologically-oriented person and beekeeping fits into that. Lastly, I get honey out of it.
Do you ever sell your honey or have you ever thought about creating an online market? Or do you mainly see your beekeeping as a hobby?
I see it primarily as a hobby. In fact, I just harvested honey yesterday from my four beehives and I probably got about seventy pounds of honey. So I could sell it, but generally I just give it away to family and friends.
Tell me about your path to medicine. Were you always interested in becoming a doctor?
I first became interested in medicine in high school and kept that in the back of my mind in college. I majored in biology, and by the time I got to my junior year I realized that I did want to go to medical school.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I went to medical school in terms of specialty. However, my exposure during medical school both in the preclinical and clinical years led me into neurosurgery. Most medical students to not know what to specialty to pick at first, but when they get exposed to certain elements during their education, they realize they find a specialty that reflects not only their personalities but also how they think.
What made you decide to specialize in neurosurgery?
During your medical school rotations, you realize that the problems that you encounter with a particular specialty and the people that you will work with may or may not fit your personality.
So for example, you rotate in internal medicine. Within this specialty, the physicians are trying to put together the source of the problem for the particular medical condition that the patient has. In the case of neurosurgery, on the other hand, generally you have already identified the problem, and your goal is to take the patient through the necessary operation.
Also as a first year medical student, I was most fascinated by the brain compared to other organs. When I was rotating on other surgical specialties, I was just in awe of what could be done as a neurosurgeon. There is also so much that is unknown about the brain, which means that there will never be a time in my career where I will not be a student.
What would you say is the hardest and or the most rewarding aspect of being a surgeon?
To me, the hardest and most rewarding aspects come in one package. Sometimes you deal with very serious conditions for which there is no treatment. As a physician, you work with the patient and the family to provide comfort for them. While providing a cure is of course enormously rewarding, always being able to provide care and comfort and can be every bit as rewarding.
Is there a case that frequently returns to your memory?
It is the failures that I remember. Should I have approached the problem differently to improve the outcome or even not operated at all—I’m trying to follow the “do no harm” rule in medicine.
Do you see any intersection between ecology and medicine?
I think ecology pushes me to think about what I can do to help our environment. I carry the same perspective in medicine. What kind of things can I do or what kind of influences can I exert on our medical environment? There may be some similarities there.
Do you think that beekeeping as a hobby can mitigate any of the effects of physician burnout?
Beekeeping is one of those activities that require a lot of focus. For example, when you open up a hive for inspection, you cannot disrupt the bees. Otherwise you might get seriously stung. So, you have to concentrate on what you're doing. I find this process meditative, and can take my mind away from things at work that I may have been dwelling on.
What is one piece of advice that you would give to anyone pursuing medicine and has a passion outside of medicine?
Medicine is an all-consuming passion—it is much more than a job. The problem is that this passion can be overwhelming sometimes. So, it is important to find some other intellectually engaging pursuit to balance that passion, so that your whole identity is not subsumed into this one thing.
You have to pick something that accommodates the type of schedule that you have as a doctor. While some physicians pick a career that gives them a lot a free time to pursue many activities, most surgeons don’t have a lot of free time. You have to figure out something that can be done within that framework. You could be an artist, write, or even beekeep. Whatever you choose has to fit in with the kind of specialty you have chosen.
Chiemala Ohanele is a staff writer for Doctors Who Create, a website founded by Vidya Viswanathan, a third-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine. This story was produced as part of a partnership between Penn Medicine and Doctors Who Create, and is jointly published online at DoctorsWhoCreate.com.
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