Surgeons are used to working in sterile rooms with drab walls and lots of equipment. The focus is on the patient and the procedure at hand. But when he’s done with surgery for the day, Dr. Roy Phitayakorn escapes to a very different environment.
His private office at Massachusetts General Hospital is a homey space that reflects his passion for medicine and surgery, his fascination with history, and his appreciation of the whimsical. This is where his professional and private lives mix, where he works quietly, and where he unwinds.
He doesn’t display his medical degree on the wall. Instead, the first thing visitors may notice is a giant fake moose head mounted on the wall, wearing a Santa hat. Phitayakorn, 43, was so thrilled to receive his first paycheck as an intern in 2002 that he decided to buy something ridiculous. Now, even though he holds prestigious titles at Mass. General and Harvard Medical School, the moose still keeps him company.
Alongside books and papers, his office shelves are crammed with a random assortment of tchotchkes — souvenirs from tropical vacations, antiques he found on eBay, and various gifts from family, friends, and patients.
The office is where Phitayakorn keeps the things that don’t fit in his Downtown Crossing condo. If there’s a theme to the collection, it’s that he finds all of these objects fun or interesting in some way.
“There’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding,” he admits.
His long Thai last name is pronounced “fit-a-yak-on.” The name inspired one of his patients to draw a cartoon of a yak standing on a table. Phitayakorn distributes copies of the cartoon to all his new patients, as an ice breaker. The drawing apparently resonates. Many patients have given him yak-related gifts, including a painting of a yak, an engraved tray picturing a yak on a table, and even yak bones.
Phitayakorn, a general and endocrine surgeon, has long been interested in the history of medicine. He owns nearly 20 doctor bags, many dating to the late 1800s, when doctors made house calls. They contain tiny glass vials once used to mix medicines.
A row of old fans lines a shelf above Phitayakorn’s desk. Tinkering with old motors is a hobby for this surgeon, another way to use his hands.
“My wife gave me my first one,” he says. “I loved it because I could disassemble it and clean it and reassemble it. It’s very low-stress. The wiring is very simple. You can really make something that doesn’t work into something that’s amazing.”
Also on display: a Popeye the Sailor figurine, and a Cookie Monster doll. These are reminders to stay grounded.
“You don’t want to take yourself too seriously,” Phitayakorn says. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be a surgeon, but sometimes people get a little bit caught up in the titles and the role and forget why they originally did this in the first place.”
Phitayakorn spends about two days each week in the operating room. But he begins and ends his days in his private office, usually arriving by 7 a.m. and leaving about 12 hours later.
In addition to operating on patients, he is deeply involved in teaching and research, serving as director of medical student education and director of surgery education research.
He became familiar with hospitals when he was a boy. His father was a surgeon and his mother was an anesthesiologist at a hospital in Pennsylvania, where he grew up.
“The OR nurses practically raised me,” he says.
After medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, and residency training at Case Western Reserve University, Phitayakorn came to Mass. General a decade ago for his fellowship.
He worked out of a small office until a few months ago, when a bigger room across the hall became available, giving him more space to exhibit his things.
Colleagues like to drop by his unusual office, but Phitayakorn tries not to bring patients there. It’s too distracting.
“We end up spending 20 minutes talking about my office instead of them,” he says.