This is far and away the most common question I am asked by new patients. I usually answer "...well, it just clicked!", which is true, but not really any kind of explanation. The longer explanation is a combination of
  • a few chance and fairly trivial experiences growing up which focused my attention on the hand, and
  • several ways in which the field of hand surgery matched my own personality. 
Caveat emptor: true to form for most biographical information on the web, what follows is personal, trite and boring. Now would be a good time to click on the "back" button of your browser or click here to see interesting facts about the hand or click here to see other interesting hand links elsewhere on the internet...

Experiences focusing a young mind on hands
  • Dr. No and hot coffee

  • In 1963, my father brought the family to see the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, at the local drive-in theater. I was in elementary school. I was fascinated by the fact that the arch villain of the movie had mechanical hands with superhuman strength. My interest was piqued further that night by the fact that during the movie, I was sent to the refreshment stand to get coffee for my parents. The paper cups had no handles, I had no carrying box, and the cups were too hot to hold continuously by the sides. A helpful stranger saw my plight and handed them to me one at a time, instructing me to hold each cup by only the top and bottom rims. On the the way back in the dark, splashing hot coffee, I burned fingers of both hands, unable to stop and set either cup down because of the way I was holding them. Although Dr. No ultimately met his end because of his hands (unable to secure a hold on a greased metal pole and slowly sliding down to his doom), I was acutely aware that he would not have had the coffee crisis I had just endured. The image of his superpowered hands burned in my mind for months. I found a pair of plastic gloves and used them to pretend that I had super hands, just like Dr. No.
  • Drumming

  • In first or second grade, after seeing the incredible drummer Buddy Rich on television, I decided that I was going to be a drummer. Toward that end, I spent many hours during school classes practicing finger tapping, trying to develop independence of the fingers to tap different combinations, sequences and postures of my fingers - drumming my fingers rather than actually drumming. These finger movements were mesmerizing to me, although irritating to my teachers.
  • Mr. Spock

  • Years later, watching Star Trek, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize Mr. Spock's Vulcan hand salute as an already well practiced finger drumming exercise of mine. Spock was a very hands-intensive character - the Vulcan nerve pinch, the Vulcan mind meld, each performed with the fingertips alone. I later found that the show's inspiration for the hand sign was that used by the Kohanim Hebrew priests - blessing the congregation while forming the letter 'shin' with their hands. 
  • Drawing

  • In middle school, while the girls sitting next to me were drawing horses, I was drawing hands - I don't know why. They were inexplicably interesting and unexpectedly difficult to draw. I am sad that I have no copies of these.
  • Rob

  • My oldest brother, Rob, was a brilliant, funny and most remarkable guy who could do ...anything. Rob's demons kept him from completing college. He wound up working physically demanding jobs to support his family, and abandoned other career opportunities. One year in high school, I had a summer job where he worked. When I told him that I had decided not to not go to college after high school, he pulled me aside and showed me his hands. He was tall, and had truly huge hands, callused and worn, with marks from innumerable injuries on the job, old and new. With an uncharacteristically serious expression, he simply said: "Look at my hands. They get beaten up every single day because I have to do this." He looked down at his hands, gave me a hard look, turned and walked away. I got the message. I changed my mind and went to college, remembering his hands.
  • Waldo

  • No, no, not "Where's Waldo?". Long before that Waldo arrived, I was an avid science fiction reader  - from grade school through college. The theme of special, augmented or mechanical hands was common in the genre. I was a big fan of Robert Heinlein, and was fascinated by his 1940's novel Waldo, which introduced "waldos": remote controlled mechanical hands. Waldos appear not only in a number of Heinlein's other writings, but in those of other authors, and of course now exist in a number of telepresence systems. Based on these ideas, through college and early medical school I had actually intended to become a biomedical engineer and design artificial hands and eyes - until I realized that I was more excited by the thought of working on the real thing.
  • Guitar

  • Although I played trumpet in my middle and high school bands, I wasn't very good. I decided to teach myself guitar in high school and still play. I was impressed with the entire process of playing guitar: finger independence - similar to my prior finger tapping endeavors - as well as the fact that although I am right handed, my left hand had such a heavy burden of dexterity. I loved going to concerts, watching the fingers of the lead guitar players in the bands, trying to pick up new techniques - the hard way.
  • Dr. Weeks

  • In medical school, students initially sit for months through endless basic science lectures, typically stupefying reviews accompanied by black and white diagrams of arrows connecting drawings of molecules, bacteria, cells, or on a lucky day, mice. After suffering through this, I was one day stunned and inspired with a lecture by Dr. Paul Weeks, who gave a talk on the care of hand problems. He spoke in a casual way while running through a fascinating slide show of problem hands, some gruesome, all fascinating. Click! That was it.

Personality and Hand Surgery

Many physicians deal with hand problems, but hand surgery proper is a unique endeavor which appeals to a unique group of people, who tend to be a bit obsessive, like to tinker with small things, enjoy organizing and categorizing, dealing with problems which require creative on the spot solutions, and enjoy dealing with people on a very personal level. Hand surgery attracts folks with these personalities because in hand surgery :

  • The structures one deals with are small, mechanical, precise, multiple, and complexly related.
  • The problems one deals with are visible, functional, infinitely variable and intensely personal.
  • The people one deals with are the entire spectrum of humanity. 
And so, yes, I like to work with small things. I enjoy mechanical and mental puzzles. I enjoy the ability to provide meaningful care and comfort to people as a physician. I enjoy working with my hands and I am fascinated by hands. 

Alice in WonderlandEscher's Drawing HandsMazeKlein BottleMandalaJorge Luis BorgesDr. Robert W. Beasley

  • Moebius Strip Endless Loops

  • A final note. I was also drawn to hand surgery because it is such a curious concept in itself: Hand surgery is the Möbius strip of medicine - hands working on hands. The themes of symmetry, paradox and endless loops have always been interests of mine, drawing me earlier to kaleidoscopes, mandala art, Lewis Carroll, M. C. Escher, and Jorge Luis Borges. I was pleasantly surprised to have a number of "Borges moments" on the road to becoming a hand surgeon. For example, at NYU, I spent time twice on Dr. Robert Beasley's Hand Surgery service - first as neophyte and then years later when I had more experience. Dr. Beasley masterfully explained problems to his patients with concise, crystal clear nonmedical language, his trademark. At the first round of these discussions, I listened almost as a lay person. Years later, I heard them again as a hand surgeon. At each passage, the words were basically the same, but my perception of their implications and importance was entirely different. I was dramatically reminded of the Borges story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote in which the same text is interpreted completely differently when presented in a new context. Every time I listened, I heard something new. And so it remains with every hand I see.
Charles Eaton MD