The first time that I witnessed death was in a surgical suite. I was rotating with a general surgeon that told delightful stories and jokes in a charming Irish brogue. He was charismatic and funny, quick-witted and smart. By the end of the month, though, his stories and jokes kept repeating. His accent became annoying and I was tired of his relentless charm.
On the last day of my rotation, he took me out to dinner.
“I noticed that you do not salt your food before you eat it. This is good. I do not trust people who salt their food BEFORE they taste it. They are mindless imbeciles,” and with that statement, I passed the rotation.
It was apparent early on that I was not going to be a surgeon. For the entire month, I felt an underlying queasy feeling. It seemed as if I were a slave to my bodily functions. I was either starving to death or needing to pee. One never knew how long a surgery would be and there was no getting out once it started. His first surgery may be scheduled for 7am, but he never graced the door before 10am, yet on the off chance that he would be on time, I was there ready and waiting.
With my stomach growling and churning by 2pm, an ungodly smell of burning and raw flesh would mix in the air. I was hungry and repelled simultaneously. Starving, queasy, bladder full, standing in one spot for hours, fearful of corrupting the sterility of the surgical field, the charming Irishman would then pounce and grill me relentlessly about anatomy, technique, surgical tools, and infection all for the delight of the audience of students, nurses, surgical techs, and anesthesiologists in the room.
By 10 pm, we had finished the day’s work. We were discussing the last case in the hallway, when a cardiothoracic surgeon rushed by, “Let me borrow your student, I’ve got a triple A and I need some help.”
Oh shit, I don’t want to, I’m tired. Please say no, please say no.
“OK, sure. Kim, go scrub in.”
This was an emergency. The room was a blur of blue gowns and machines. The surgeon and I stood across from each other with the patient in between. A nurse pushed a stool towards me to stand on because I was always too short for the table (another reason not to be a surgeon).
We then began the dance. He opened up the abdomen and a rush of blood poured out. Nurses were hanging bags of blood 2 and 3 at a time. He was directing my hands and I was holding back intestines, trying my hardest to clear a window for him to work.
In the midst of the gore, the surgeon began an onslaught of questions about anatomy, technique, surgical tools, and infection. We even argued about the definition of a triple A. Was it a rupture or a dissection? Whatever I answered was wrong and he went on to tell me about it for the remainder of the surgery. I was saved only by the interruption of the anesthesiologist. The patient was tachycardic and their blood pressure was dropping. The blood was coming out fasting than we could get it in.
Their heart slowed and then it stopped and they were gone. The surgeon muttered “son of a bitch” under his breath, tore off his gloves and gown, threw them on the floor and stomped off. He left me there, my arms up to the elbows in the patient’s body, my gown covered in blood, stunned. Only then did I look around and realize that the patient was a middle-aged black woman. She could be someone’s mother. She died with my hands still inside of her. While I was dodging questions, trying to impress the surgeon, analyzing the fullness of my bladder, she was dying and I almost didn’t notice.