A story about how creativity saved a man’s life:
The other day I went to meet a friend for coffee. As we were sitting there, a couple she is friends with joined, and at some point we started talking about creativity. A friend of a friend, Ross, told me this story about the unintended impact of creativity, and gave me permission to share it.
Ross, as a 23 year old sales representative for US Surgical Corp., was standing in the operating room during a colon surgery in Daytona Halifax Hospital in year 1981 or 1982. He was selling medical devices to doctors in hospitals so they could use them in their procedures. In this instance, he was selling a new technology that aided surgeons in 1) removing cleanly a portion of colon during an abdominal surgery (called a low interior resection procedure, a surgery that can be used to remove diseased sections of colon, such as to address colon cancer) and 2) reconnecting the two ends of the remaining colon securely with staples, allowing the patient full use of his colon without the need for a colostomy bag.
As with any device, there were some procedures to follow in the use of the device. As a sales representative, it was Ross’ job to know the usage of the device and be able to help surgeons and other medical professionals understand them. And Ross was good at it, otherwise he wouldn’t have driven that red corvette that he had fully paid for with his commission checks to the hospital that day.
This particular surgeon that was planning on using that medical device that day had an excellent reputation and their agreement in him purchasing and using this new device was that Ross was committed to being there in the operating room during surgery while he used the new device to be able to answer any questions as they came up.
The surgeon asked him to scrub in and be in the OR room during his first time using the device. So Ross was partially paying attention because for much of the surgery so far, there had been no questions, everything was going as planned. Until it wasn’t. The surgeon started swearing loudly and the OR room became silent. He heard the swearing and knew he needed to pay attention. Ross realized that the device hadn’t fully clamped both ends of the colon section and staple the colon together as it was designed to do, so in the process, one end of a colon ended up higher in the pelvis.
Ross knew from having read all the procedures that there wasn’t a procedure to address this. There wasn’t a procedure to realign the existing colon to be stapled once the diseased portion of colon was removed. To his knowledge this had never happened before and no one had to come up with a solution so far, most likely because no one anticipated that ever happening. And in that moment, the surgeon asked him “What do I do next?” as he stood there waiting. Ross knew he needed to figure it out in that moment. Immediately what came to mind was an article he had read the night before about medicine that could help with relaxing the colon. In thinking it through on the spot, he told them about the medicine and the amount recommended in the journal article. The surgeon told the anesthesiologist to give him that medication, the anesthesiologist agreed and did it. Ross then mentioned the use of a tool already in the OR room to help get the colon back into position to be able to staple both pieces together sufficiently so that it was as if the issue had never happened. The surgeon immediately retrieved the tool and started using it as Ross had described. It worked as Ross had thought it could. Ross in the moment was relieved he had figured it out. He figured he was just doing his job in having an answer for them.
He didn’t realize until the next day when the surgeon asked him to come to a patient’s room with him what an impact it had made. The surgeon introduced him to the patient and told the patient, a man in his 30s, lying in his hospital bed, that if Ross hadn’t figured it out in that OR room, he would be using a colostomy bag. As that man thanked him, it was in that moment that Ross realized what a big deal it had been for him to figure out what he did in that OR room that day prior. It was at that moment he realized the power of creativity.
Ross’ story exemplifies these 5 points about creativity:
#1 We may not think we need creativity until we need it. And if we wait until we need it to start building those muscles, then chances are we are not going to be able to be creative in that moment without potentially getting overcome, or creativity lessened, by fear. But if we have been tapping into our creativity on a regular basis, then we realize, this is our moment, this is the moment we have been preparing for.
#2 We need to support new innovations that better our world. If someone hadn’t used their creativity to innovate that new technology, that man wouldn’t have been selling it and the person needing the colon surgery wouldn’t have benefited from it. And he’d still be using a colostomy bag. Don’t know what that is? Google it.
#3 We need to value creativity and recognize its benefits when we see it. If the surgeon hadn’t realized the value in the new medical device, or the value in having that sales rep in the OR room, he wouldn’t have been doing that particular surgery and that patient wouldn’t have benefitted from it either.
#4 Creativity enables us to think on our feet, to figure it out when we need to when we need it. When do we most likely need creativity? When something doesn’t go as planned. Think of it like insurance, without the focus beforehand on something going awry.
#5 Accessing and using your creativity increases your creative confidence. Ross went on to develop medical devices and obtain patents for them. If he hadn’t started implementing creativity into his life before the surgery, would he have been able to think as well on his feet in that OR room? Do you think he would have been able to have the creative confidence to create patented medical devices that have helped thousands of patients since?
In order to benefit from creativity and innovation, we need to be exercising our creativity muscle. This can help us recognize moments to use our creativity and be prepared to use it when we or others need it, it can help us recognize creativity in others, and innovations that require change to benefit from them, with the willingness to accept the change.
Looking back, 40 plus years later, as that man is telling me that story, he admitted he had no idea what impact that was going to have on someone, he was just trying to do his job well. We don’t always know the impact that our creativity can have on someone’s life. In this case it saved the quality of a man’s life potentially for decades. Maybe to us it is something that is easy for us, but maybe to that one person, it means so much. Don’t discount your ability to help someone creatively by doing something that they can’t do for themselves. If you want to make a difference later, whether for you or for someone else, you need to start actively choosing creativity now. Because we don’t know until that moment, that we need creativity.
So what is creativity? And how do we use it? For those answers, read Think you aren’t creative? Part 2: 11 Ways creativity is impacted by the choices you make.