Mission: Operating Room

One day back when your storyteller was still Newspaper Guy, I was sitting in my office one late afternoon editing the work of my reporters for the next day’s paper. It was the end of April in Minnesota, which meant the once-mountainous piles snow were down to about 2-foot-tall rounded mounds of filthy, pebble-strewn ice.

My iPhone 2 – that hip, cool technological marvel – bleated with the opening riff from “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” My wife was calling.

“There’s been a little accident,” she said. “Joey’s head banged into the Foosball table and we need to take him to the hospital. Can you meet us there?”

Sure. Because that’s what dads do. They go to the hospital when their child is bleeding profusely from the head.

Dad. Of. The. Year.

I walked into the emergency room, told the friendly Front-Desk Person (not an official job title) who I was and who I was there to see, and a nurse (official job title) ushered me back to a curtained-off area.

A few things to know:

  1. I am a professional wrestling fan of the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, I have seen Ric Flair wrestle countless matches in which he was “busted wide open!” and bled prodigiously into his platinum-blond hair.
  2. Joey, a week shy of his sixth birthday at the time, had platinum-blond hair.

As I pushed curtain aside, I was confronted with a miniature Ric Flair, his hair a Strawberry Shortcake red underneath a mass of something that was meant to staunch the flow of blood. My son looked at me … and smiled.

At least, I think he smiled. I was trying to remain conscious.

It is not that I am not good with blood. I, like most men who were once rambunctious little boys, have bled many times. The worst I can remember came in first grade when I fell on the gym floor chin-first, splitting it open. Mr. Walsh, Vietnam-veteran-turned-gym-teacher, scooped me up like the hero he was and carried me at a near sprint to the nurse’s office, blood flowing all over me and him. I sported a huge bandage on my face for the next two weeks and thought I was pretty cool. The scar is now hidden by my beard, but every once in a while I still rub my fingers over it and remember Mr. Walsh.

So no, it’s not that I can’t handle blood. It’s that I might now be so good handling blood on other people.

Soon after I became Storyteller in Chief for the St. Louis Shriners Hospital, a friendly nurse told me with great excitement, “You have to come into the operating room to see how it all works!”

I was pretty sure that wasn’t in the job description I had recently signed. So I checked.

“Other duties as assigned.”

Crap.

But wait! No one could assign such a thing to me except my boss.

“Oh yes! It’s a tremendous opportunity!” said she.

“So what was it like?”

“Oh, I’ve never done it. I think I’d pass out.”

Great.

I have some experience in operating rooms. The first time, my gall bladder was ripped from my innards. (Side note: I have not had a case of the hiccups in the 20 years since that surgery. I guess hiccups live in the gall bladder.) The second was when I had major reconstructive ankle surgery. Both times, my view of the operating room was from eyes with 20/320 vision, which is to say that a fuzzy shape hovered over me, put something on my face and a disembodied voice told me to count backwards from 100. I am proud to say I made it to ninety-eig and then woke up in another place where different fuzzy shapes offered my ice chips. It might have been an alien abduction. The jury is still out.

So.

When I was writing this story about our hospital’s 2020 DAISY Award winner, I was deep in the throes of COVID. From my home office (translation: Mancave with my laptop on a TV tray and youngest son singing Shinedown songs at the top of his lungs from somewhere downstairs), I talked with Pat Long, a 40-year veteran of the operating room. From said laptop, I had watched the socially distanced ceremony a few hours earlier in which she was surprised with the award.

But that ceremony didn’t tell me much about her. I had emailed with some of the hospital brass and received her bio information, and a colleague gave me some really good quotes about why she’s a deserving award winner.

Yet I still didn’t know her.

Talking to award-winners is never easy. Unless they are an athlete, they rarely want to talk about what makes them different, what sets them apart to be seen by their peers as special. Pat was gracious and friendly, but to her, what she does is simply what she does. She can imagine no other way of being who she is.

So I tried a different tactic.

“Tell me what it’s like to be in an operating room. Paint a picture for me with words what you see, what you hear, what you smell.”

So she did. And in that I found my story.

What makes Pat great in the operating room is not what she learned in nursing school. Yes, that built the foundation on which she’s built her career. It’s not that she’s memorized the procedures our physicians perform. In fact, she told me that if I asked her to tell me how a certain operation flows, she wouldn’t be able to do it.

Rather, what Pat’s response to my “paint a picture in words” revealed was that what makes her great is a special ability to anticipate what is about to happen in an operating room. From what I learned, surgery is a very in-the-moment thing a lot of the time. Something just happened, so you do the next thing. What Pat is able to do is see the next thing that hasn’t happened yet, the thing that might not have happened in any of the hundreds of similar surgeries she’s seen before. (In fact, Pat would say there’s no such thing as a “similar surgery” because, as she put it, each surgery is unique, each patient is unique.) So, for example, when a doctor puts up a hand and is about to call for the next instrument, it is already in his or her hand before the words are spoken. It’s not exactly supernatural, but it does smack of clairvoyance. And who’s to say that it’s not?

For I, too, am clairvoyant.

I see a future in which I do go into the operating room to witness a surgery and vomit all over the floor Pat has made 3,000 percent sure is 10,000 percent sterile. I peer into the beyond and witness myself passing out and re-busting-open my long-ago-busted-open chin. I hear the snickering in the days, months and years to follow as I walk the halls of the hospital past nurses and doctors and every single other hospital employee who has been told of my fainting expedition. My great-great grandchild read via implanted eye microchip the 200th anniversary history book of the St. Louis Shriners Hospital in which my operating-room swan-dive is listed as “The Hospital’s Most Embarrassing Moment.”

But the thing is, I want to do this. I want to see our physicians and nurses in action, changing the life of a child through a major limb lengthening surgery or scoliosis operation. I want to see and feel for myself the excellent word picture Pat painted for me. It will make me a better storyteller and give me greater understanding of what it is like to be part of the medical team at our hospital.

So I tell myself now, from the safety behind the laptop on the TV tray, that I will do it. That I will enter the operating room. To be a part of the magic that happens at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital. To see. To feel. To hear. To smell. (I draw the line at touch.) I want to be that observer. I will be that observer.

I just might need a nurse of my own to make sure I make it through. Pat, you available?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: