It’s 0730 and I’m not in the OR for a change. I’m in the surgery waiting room. Up at 0330, nervous, my wife in the shower with the antiseptic soap for her timed, three-minute last dose. Two hard-boiled eggs for me and a double coffee from the Kureg that she made while I was loading up the car; and we were off. An hour drive, YoYo Ma on the Pandora station, quiet chatter in the pre-dawn darkness, a 40 minute wait in the pre-op holding area waiting room because she didn’t want me in the room for the check-in, 20 more minutes in the cramped pre-op room with her where I was a quiet presence in the corner recliner during a staccato of visits; the surgeon, the circulator, the anesthesiologist, the CRNA, the chaplain. A quick kiss good-by, a wan smile smile from behind a blurry gauze of Versed and Fentanyl delivered seconds before, and then she was gone.
When I’m the patient it doesn’t seem as significant, and I’ve been a patient much more than she has. I think, for me, as a patient, there is not so much thought that goes into things, merely an interest at being on the other side of the curtain, if only from a professional perspective; however, I am finding there is much more introspection when it’s her rather than me. You see, when you’re the patient, you have pain, or you have a problem, and you just want to feel better, or for it to go away, so there’s not much room for thought I don’t think. But now, in a room with strangers, and a very significant number on the monitor at the front of the room indicating the location and status of my loved one, all I can do is think.
Of course everything will be fine. It always is, except when it’s not, but that barely ever happens. There are fourteen numbers on the monitor. “In Procedure,” says my number. I am impressed by the un-ordinariness of surgery, which of course I happen to find quite ordinary. I am struck by the vulnerability, the expectation, the anticipation, and the trust. So much trust the patient gives the doctor: It is the highest honor, an honor too oft taken for granted, blunted by the repetitive routine-ness of daily work, and therefore a reminder for me and something to be thankful for this morning.
When I made my introductory video that is posted on my landing page, I referenced difficult days, terrible days, days that may represent less than a handful over the course of a career; and how a day like that can wipe the goodness from all the others like steam from a window. I should have also mentioned the good days that are much more common, so much so that they become routine and themselves become taken for granted. When I talk of a bad day, it is a matter of degree, the most severe being when a patient dies. The other end of the spectrum is simply a case that is technically challenging, which is a matter of degree all by itself; but there are those in-between kind of days when a patient has a poor outcome; a wound infection, a trip back to the operating room or a prolonged operative course:–it is these days of slightly more frequency, random, still as regular as a metronome smeared out over the course of a year that wear on me over time and trigger contemplation of that burden not being there someday.
There are cases I remember over the past 30 years, mile posts in my life, patients that are as crystal clear in my mind as my parents, snapshots of time; both good and bad, mostly good, but significant, like how people can remember what they were doing the day Kennedy was shot:–that’s what it’s like for me, my war stories.