Every surgeon dreams of the day when they’ll wield the cold steel of the scalpel independently. Of the day they’ll see their name on the daily operating room (OR) schedule. Of the day they’ll be the one leading the surgery team. Of the day they will finally get to choose the music.
Surgeons are particular people, and our music choice is no exception. I once spent an entire day assisting a hand surgeon listening to Broadway show tunes. A general surgeon I trained under listened to the “Hip Hop BBQ” Pandora station on repeat. Every. Single. Day. I remember a vascular surgeon who loved music and listened to anything and everything. He loved to “pimp” us medical students on the name of the song, the artist, and the history behind it. Music trivia was not my strong suit, so I begged him to ask me questions on aortic aneurysms instead, which I had spent hours studying. The only exception to his eclectic music taste was for carotid artery endarterectomies. For these, he insisted on only classical music so he could give the operation his undivided attention. I couldn’t wait for my turn to come. I knew exactly who I would be playing in the OR: Taylor Swift.
I first remember listening to Taylor Swift in my twenties when Fearless debuted. What chronically single twenty-something girl didn’t dramatically sing the words “So why can’t you see? You belong with me” and imagine themselves in Taylor’s sneakers? Her romantic angst resonated with me as I tried my hand at dating with minimal success. I dreamed of a handsome Romeo kneeling to the ground to ask for my hand in marriage while proclaiming his love for me. Taylor created this magical fantasy world of love that my young self desperately pined for. Later when I had a string of heartbreaks, her album Red spoke to me. “We are never ever ever getting back together, Like, ever!” I crooned with my friends over yet another failed relationship. I clung to these words as my mantra.
As I matured, so did Taylor and her lyrics. She transitioned from country to pop to indie folk and then back to pop. The themes of her songs broadened from teenage lust and the loss of innocence to feminist ballads and identity discovery. As a female surgeon in a male-dominated field, I admired her bravery, independence, and entrepreneurship. She was thriving despite all the “haters.” No one sang louder than I did when “The Man” dropped. The lyrics “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man” looped through my head on repeat as the nurses in fellowship targeted me frequently for minimal infractions they overlooked in others. I knew exactly how Taylor felt. It was exhausting being a woman surgeon. I had to ask twice as much and twice as nice to get anything done. I worked on modifying the tone of my voice and my facial expressions to avoid being labeled as “a bitch, not a baller.” One slip up and “they’d paint me out to be bad.”
When “Anti-hero” came out in October 2022, I latched onto the main lines of the chorus, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” As a new surgery attending, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. The COVID-19 pandemic had left its mark on medicine and we were severely understaffed. I worked with new nurses and surgical techs every day. I repeatedly had to ask for the equipment I needed, which made me seem bossy and high-maintenance. But the longer I waited for equipment, the longer my patient waited under anesthesia. In my quest to improve patient care, I was reprimanded and told I was rude and condescending. “Anti-Hero” became my anthem and the first song I listened to every day in the OR. I made my own custom scrub hats that said, “It’s me, hi, I’m the surgeon, it’s me.” These new hats were my armor conveying the double entendre women surgeons face daily of not being taken seriously as a surgeon while simultaneously being labeled as the problem.
This past spring, I was lucky enough to be able to see Taylor Swift in concert at her ERAS tour in Chicago with my best friend. My whole OR team rooted for me as my friend waited in the ticket queue all day to finally be able to buy us tickets. Watching Taylor sing, dance, and hustle for three and a half hours straight only made me love her more. I felt like I was reliving Taylor’s life and my own at the same time. For each era, I could envision that same era of my own life, the challenges I had faced, and how I had found solace in Taylor’s songs.
For many of the staff I work with in the OR, my obsession with Taylor Swift seems like a cute idiosyncrasy. But for me, her music runs deeper. In the daily chaos of the OR where I often feel like I cannot control anything that happens, I can at least control my music. It is the one constant and the one thing that truly grounds me. Her songs bring me back to my youth, to my failed relationships and brief moments of love. They bring me back to growing out of my shell as a shy teenager and discovering myself as a woman. But even more, they empower me to “shake it off” to be the strong and fearless surgeon I know I am.
Andrea L. Merrill is an assistant professor of surgery at the Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine and a surgical oncologist at Boston Medical Center. She can be reached at Scrubbed Out, on Instagram @anjlm and @scrubbedoutsurgeon and X @AndreaLMerrill. She possesses advanced training in breast cancer and endocrine diseases. Dr. Merrill earned her undergraduate and medical degrees at Tufts University. She completed her residency training in general surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, an editorial fellowship at the New England Journal of Medicine, and a surgery fellowship in complex surgical oncology at The Ohio State University.