December 1, 2022
The ACS and fate granted me the honor of carrying the Great Mace one time. Up until the night I first held this talisman of surgeons, I was unaware of the power it holds over us and the person honored to carry it. I held this inspiring piece of art during the 2022 Convocation for less than 40 minutes all told; yet I felt a real effect that will last the rest of my life. This essay is for those who wonder what that experience is like and why I now feel so strongly about this symbol, which was presented as a gift of goodwill to the ACS in 1920 from British surgeons who worked alongside American surgeons during World War I.
For the months prior to the event, one is reminded with a smile and a laugh by others that the main and only important job of the Secretary is to not drop the Mace. One responds typically with a smile and a laugh in return, but deep down there is the tug of worry that maybe you will be the one who drops it. Your laugh has just a tinge of nervous quality.
For many years, the person orchestrating the dance of Convocation has been Donna Coulombe, Senior Special Projects Manager, ACS Executive Services. A woman of incomparable competence, Donna reassures the Secretary that all will be well. She makes sure all the locks lock and the gears mesh so that the Secretary looks the part appropriately during the ceremony. Without Donna and her predecessors, the Mace likely would have been dropped metaphorically many times. When an email from Donna arrives, one reads it immediately and follows her directions precisely—especially the date, time, and place of rehearsal, which is the time one finds out the heft and magic of the Mace. It is the first time one actually touches it.
The personnel charged with transporting and protecting the Mace during those days it travels from Chicago to Convocation are friendly, serious, semi-secret service types. They have “eyes” on the Mace at all times. During rehearsal, the Secretary is taught how to hold the object, how its cradle works, and how one should walk with it. Suddenly, one realizes this is serious and meaningful. Convocation and the Mace must be treated with respect.
Rehearsal over, the Mace is carefully placed back in its protective container and continues to be guarded against harm. As I surrendered it to its caretakers, I was reluctant to give it up for a reason I couldn’t articulate at the time.
The time before Convocation passes much more quickly than one imagines. Initiates, Governors, Regents, Officers soon descend upon the robing area. The air is crackling with anticipation. One can feel the pride and sense of accomplishment of the Initiates, the sense of duty of the College officials. All are bathed in a rare bonhomie that comes with such celebrations of excellence in scholarship and principle.
For those leading the procession, there are signs with our names taped to the floor to assure we proceed in the proper order. During the 30 minutes or so before the Mace is handed to the Secretary, the weight of it begins to have an effect. ACS Executive Director and CEO Patricia L. Turner, MD, MBA, FACS, comes over and gives the Secretary encouragement that all will go smoothly. One knows that in a few minutes it will again be placed in one’s hands and that this is no drill, no rehearsal. The Mace will be presented to 2,000 people and 1,100 or more new Initiates will become Fellows of the ACS, which has been an adventure of at least 13 years of study, joy, tears, and sacrifice. That is what Convocation represents. For many, they have traveled from all corners of the globe to have this almost sacred moment.
The music starts and the Initiates begin their procession. The entry of 1,100 people takes a bit of time. All the while, the Secretary is holding what is probably only 20 or 25 pounds of gleaming metal, but as the minutes pass, one realizes that weight is going to be with one for a while, and the minutes begin to become long.
Both too quickly and too slowly the moment comes when the Mace is visible to the audience. Nothing prepares one for that moment. The instant before, the Secretary is just an honorific person and, in the next instant, becomes the bearer of the symbol representing all the effort of the surgeons, their parents, significant loved ones, children, and their teachers.
It seems everyone in the enormous hall has a camera. They take picture after picture as the Mace proceeds up the aisle, and they don’t stop anytime the Mace is in motion. The longest moment is when the national anthems of Canada and the US are played. The Secretary stands there at center stage holding the Mace. The weight grows heavier, and the Secretary feels almost invisible knowing that the eyes of the multitude are on the Mace, not the person holding it.
The proceedings move on. Great words are spoken. Initiates become Fellows. Fine surgeons are recognized. The great moment for the person who is becoming President arrives, and the inspiring words of the speech are spoken. The closing music begins to play. The Mace moves again. Just as before—more pictures. The Secretary begins to feel the weight lifting. The Mace was not dropped. Happiness is palpable throughout the crowd.
In the robing area, Regents, Officers, Past Presidents press forward to view the Mace and touch it for a moment. Kathryn D. Anderson, MD, FACS, FRCS, who was both a previous Secretary and President of the ACS, asks to hold it one more time. Of course. Even more pictures are taken; then all too soon the guardians come forward to place the Mace back into its private realm until next year. This time I really don’t want to let go. Like Tolkien’s ring, it has taken a certain power over me. It was my precious for a short time. The feeling is too visceral to truly describe. I take joy that others will soon have the same experience and now I share something with all the past Secretaries of the ACS. I will never look at the Mace in the same way again. I now know the power of so profound a symbol and am grateful to have been its keeper for a few moments.