The Good Doctor

By Mackenzie Reiss

Dr. Gregory Ripich has been cutting people open for over 10 years. It’s his job as a general surgeon at Auburn Memorial Hospital. But unlike some surgeons, Ripich doesn’t believe in “playing God.” Underneath the white coat, scalpel, and indecipherable slew of medical jargon is a man who’s as much flesh and blood as the rest of us.

Dr. Ripich’s individuality isn’t written in his credentials, it’s in the way this good doctor carries himself within the high-pressured walls of the operating room. Compassion makes a great doctor, Ripich said. “Sometimes [surgeons] are seen as people who just treat the disease, but I think the most important part is that there’s a lot of compassion that goes along with it and understanding what these people are going through.” Compassion means sacrificing a part of yourself for others, which Ripich knows well. In his 20s, he traded his social life for med school, and now, as a father, he heals strangers on call while his own kids are sick at home. Yet, in the sacrifice also lies the reward: thousands of surgeries completed and lives changed for the better.

For Ripich, that reward is often bittersweet, the satisfaction always tainted by the tiniest shred of doubt. He can never completely silence the voice in the back of his head—the one that pushes him to do better. “Even if the surgery goes perfectly, and even though you did your best…things still may not turn out well, and that’s hard to deal with,” Ripich said. “That makes me more nervous than anything else. It’s not always very black and white. There’s a grey zone.” Maybe that’s why Ripich is a good doctor, a people’s doctor, even on his worst days.

Dr. Gregory Ripich soaks up blood from a patient’s chest at the close of a mastectomy surgery, where the breast is removed. To stay positive in tough situations, Ripich tries to create a relaxed environment inside the O.R. He often plays music on Pandora Radio and encourages his medical team to chat amongst themselves so everyone feels at ease.

Dr. Ripich spends from 60 to 80 hours a week on average working at Auburn Memorial Hospital. He arrives by 8 a.m. and doesn’t leave until as late as 7 p.m. on busier days. Ripich enjoys being a surgeon, but sometimes regrets not being able to spend as much time with his wife and three children.

Dr. Ripich consults with his team about the best way to approach a lengthy operation. He begins by using metal tubes, fitted with hand-held controls, to guide surgical tools into a patient’s lower torso. One tube is used to funnel a laparoscopic camera into the intestine, which allows Ripich to see what his hands are doing, deep inside a human body.

Throughout his surgical career, Dr. Ripich has performed thousands of operations. He doesn’t get nervous anymore—instead, he’s philosophical. “Why do some people get cancer, and others not?” he wonders. “Why do some people die in motor vehicle accidents, and others not? You do everything you can and sometimes things don’t work out. And it’s hard to deal with that.”

Dr. Ripich consults with patients prior to surgery. Before interacting with them for the day, Ripich reminds himself how long they spent waiting for only a few minutes of his time. Maintaining perspective can be challenging within the confines of a hospital, but regardless of his stress level, Ripich strives to hide signs of his own personal dilemma.

Dr. Ripich knots his scrub cap before entering the operating room. His pre-surgery routine falls in accordance with the hospital’s strict hygiene requirements: wash hands, wear blue scrubs designated for the O.R., and don a clean scrub cap, surgical mask, and pair of gloves.

In medical school in Ann Arbor, Mich., Ripich watched many of his fellow students drop out of the program. Surgeons have to pay attention to detail. “There are certain steps that are the same all the time,” Ripich says about performing cancer surgeries. “But there are little details that make a difference.”

An anesthesiologist prepares to put Dr. Ripich’s patient under general anesthesia for a wound exploration procedure. It is essential for a medical team to communicate well, especially during high-stress surgeries. Ripich enjoys socializing with the other nurses and doctors in the O.R.—which he didn’t get to do very much as a young adult because of the strenuous time commitments of medical school.