First Person: On life, death and dentistry
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I lived several lifetimes in the summer of 1968. Only one of which was my own.
I was heading into my junior year of pre-med when I decided I should actually see what medicine was all about. So I applied for a job at Ohio Valley General Hospital. The sister who hired me had an opening for an OR orderly. A buck fifty an hour.
On my first day I got there 20 minutes early and the head OR nurse, the legendary Miss Ida Mae Kemp, grabbed me.
"You! Get a gurney and go to the ER and bring him right up!"
I had to ask her where the gurneys were, and, uh, where was the ER?
I wheeled down there and found a guy about my age who had hurt his arm in an industrial accident. A big chopping blade had come down and cut most of the triceps off his left arm! And cracked the humerus.
I took him upstairs for emergency surgery and couldn't help but think that as I was exploring my possible professional life this kid just had his life capsized.
After that, they got me and another guy, John Osheka, into scrubs and "doctor shoes." Our job was to transport patients down to the OR suite, then take them back from Recovery, then help clean the ORs after surgery.
It was apparent right away that the nurses ran the hospital. The doctors would breeze in and out but the nurses did the heavy lifting. Patient care, hand holding, shoulders to cry on. Angels in white.
Since John and I were in scrubs, the patients would ask the nurses who the new interns were. And we got along with everybody, staff and patients. Those were the good parts.
But about a week in I went up to get someone whose name I recognized. She had graduated with my sister.
"Hey, nice to see you again. What're you in for?"
"I have breast cancer."
She was having a radical mastectomy at 18.
In those enlightened days, hospitals kept patients much longer for healing. You got to know them.
Hysterectomies came in two kinds -- vaginal procedures got you a seven-day stretch; abdominal ones nine days. Cholecystectomies (gall bladder removals), a week. Back surgery could be weeks and weeks.
I got friendly with a diabetic man whose left lower leg looked pretty bad. Two days later they called me in to the OR and I saw Dr. Carr arched over a patient with his knee up on the table. He was working a silver sterilized ripsaw on that leg. I was in there to take the leg, wrap it and walk it down to the morgue. As a 20 year-old, nothing grounds you like carrying someone's body part under your arm.
One day I was the only one by the phone, and it was Maternity.
"Please tell the doctor that Mrs. Whoever is eight centimeters (dilated)."
An OB doc was doing a Caesarean section down in the OR. As I entered I saw the coolest thing I've ever witnessed, except for the birth of my two kids. The doctor reached down through the mother's abdomen and pulled out a blood-smeared, fluid-dripping little girl. Wow! Out of that surreal environment came a brand new life.
At the end of our last day, the OR staff gave John and me a nice going-back-to-college party. We were done.
I was in the process of walking out the double doors when the ominous DOCTOR HEART call came over the P.A. system. That was shorthand for an emergency of such magnitude that any doctors in the hospital had to check in and see if they could help.
The grandfather of one of our OR nurses had blown an aortic aneurysm. We changed back into our scrubs and waited for him to be brought in. The only two surgeons in the hospital were Dr. Sam Musmanno and that same OB guy who had done the Caesarean.
Grandfather was placed on the table and Dr. Sam dived in and did some heroic work. The OB guy stood next to him and was essentially sweat-covered, nervous and worthless. My job was to run to the blood bank if they needed some units. And they needed a few.
Every time I ran out, his nurse granddaughter would ask me, "How's he doing?!!"
Hospital policy prohibited her from being in the OR. I couldn't tell her that he was doing horribly, so I would shrug my shoulders and keep running.
And then it turned into what you see on TV.
"We're losing him. More units! I can't get this stopped. The hole is too big. More sponges! More units!"
Then the anesthetist says, "Sam, the pressure's dropping. He's gonna go."
"He is not going, dammit! Sponges! More suction!"
And eventually the dreaded, "Sam, he's gone. You did your best. But he's gone."
Dr. Sam dropped his head, shoulders starting to quiver, ripped off his gloves, and sadly whispered, "Shit."
So my first foray into medicine started before it started with a young guy's life forever set back in a split second. And it ended after it ended with a man dying in front of me.
I realized that I was not cut out for that.
I turned to dentistry.
I could tell people their tooth was dead, but not that their grandfather was. I could remove a tooth, but not someone's leg. I could tell parents that I couldn't save a baby tooth, but not that I couldn't save their baby. God bless those who can.
But not me.
First Published September 1, 2012 12:00 am