|Year : 2007 | Volume
| Issue : 2 | Page : 77-80
"Did i ever tell you about my operation?"
|Date of Web Publication||17-Jun-2010|
Source of Support: Medicine. A Treasury of Art and Literature. Eds. Ann G. Carmichael and Richard M. Ratzan. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991., Conflict of Interest: None
|How to cite this article:|
Ford C. "Did i ever tell you about my operation?". Heart Views 2007;8:77-80
Some times I wonder whose operation I had. Everybody shook hands with the doctor after it was over. People rushed up to congratulate the surgeon on his skill with the scalpel. There was nothing but praise for the anesthetist. Tributes were paid to all the nurses and interns and technicians of the efficient hospital staff. Nobody had a word to say for me.
I don't want to sound ungrateful, but isn't it about time that somebody spoke up for the patient? I mean the pathetic little figure that the operation is all about. Everybody else is dressed in crisp white uniforms, but he is attired in an abbreviated nightshirt which barely comes down to the navel and is split all the way up the back, affording the wearer about as much protection as the paper filigree on the end of a lamp chop. His legs are encased in long woolen stockings, like the lower half of a bunny suit. He has a knitted skating cap on top of his head, with a name tag attached to the tassel so he won't get mixed up with some other patient and wind up in the maternity ward by mistake. No wonder that surgeons wear those gauze bandages over their faces. It's so the patient won't see them laughing.
It's his [the patient] operation, but he has nothing to do with it. He cowers in his room, awaiting the ordeal that lies ahead. Nurses sneak up behind him without warning to take his temperature. Orderlies arrive at odd hours to shave him in even odder places. Surgeons halt beside his bed and study him with the appraising eye of a host about to carve a Thanksgiving turkey. He is thumped and squeezed and poked to see if he's tender. He is looked up and down and over and under and into. They listen to him with stethoscopes, they tap him with rubber hammers; they mark his epidermis here and there with a blue pencil. He can't ask them what's going on, because he has a thermometer in his mouth. All they ever tell him is "Hmm".
He doesn't even get to see the operation when it happens. Just about the time things start to get interesting, someone produces a hypodermic needle and says in a cheerful voice: "Roll over on your stomach." His limp form is wheeled into a shiny white room which bears an unpleasant resemblance to the metal meat counter under neon lights, as naked as Saturday's rib roast special, while two hundred medical students stare at him impersonally from the balcony. When he wakes up, he is back in his bed again with part of his anatomy swathed in bandages, a throbbing headache, and the uneasy conviction that sometime while he was coming out of the anesthetic he asked the nurse's hand in marriage.
I speak with feeling, having served a stretch of time in a hospital myself. The whole affair, as I look back on it now, is a deliberate campaign to reduce the patient slowly but surely to a state of mental zero, in order to destroy his will to resist. From the moment I entered those big glass doors, I was subjected to a series of personal humiliations designed to undermine my pride and deflate my ego. Nobody can go through the daily routine of a hospital and have any dignity left. I defy even General De Gaulle to look austere sitting on a bed-pan.
The brain-washing process started right off with my accident. Actually it wasn't much of an accident. The cause was a brief but violent argument between my car and another car which tried to go where mine already was. I am naturally a law-abiding citizen, and when my car halted abruptly, I obeyed the law of inertia and kept on going until my progress was arrested by the dashboard. As a result, the car was towed off to the garage for repairs; I was towed off to the hospital.
I'm not sure what I expected to find when I got there. Obviously, I didn't really think the surgeon would be waiting for me on the front steps, tight-lipped and tense; but at least I had an idea that he might be pacing up and down the corridor, chain-smoking, and glancing now and then out the window. I could picture the look of relief on his face as the siren of my speeding ambulance grew louder. "Not a moment to lose", I could almost hear him shout, grinding his butt under a heel as he sprang into action. "Light up the main operating room at once. Call kildare and Casey in for consultation. This is undoubtedly the most unusual case I've encountered in forty years of medical practice."
It didn't quite turn out that way. The ambulance slowed down for every traffic light, and once, it pulled over to the curb while the driver went into a store to buy some cigarettes. The only time he blew his siren was when he stopped in front of the emergency entrance, evidently on the chance that some patient inside the hospital might be asleep. The orderly didn't even look up as the ambulance attendant wheeled me in.
"Much of an accident?" he asked, placing a nine of hearts on his ten of spades and pushing back his chair reluctantly.
"Smashed the radiator, crumpled the left fender, and bent in the front axle a little," the attendant shrugged, as they slid me onto table. "Tied up traffic for half an hour. Boy, was them other cars mad."
He wheeled the empty stretcher out, and the orderly began to take off my clothes. This is the first step when you enter a hospital. It doesn't matter whether you have come there to have a sliver removed from your finger; you have to get completely undressed. It's part of the whole insidious plot to degrade the patient, and is based on the theory that nobody can retain his self-respect when he has nothing on but a pair of black silk socks, with a hole in one toe.
The doctor seemed quite calm when he arrived twenty-five minutes later. In fact, if it hadn't been for my obviously critical condition, I might even have suspected that he was a little bored. He looked me over briefly, humming to himself, and whispered something to the nurse beside him. I braced myself for the worst.
"What's the verdict?" I asked in a grim let's-have-it-Doc-I-can-take-it tone.
"Now, there's nothing to worry about at all" he said in the soothing manner one might employ in addressing a slightly retarded child of six. "Humpty Dumpty had a bad fall, but we'll put him back together again snap! snap! in two shakes of a lamb's tail. The nurse will just give you a little shot, and you'll sleep like a baby."
You do everything else like a baby, too. Once the hospital gates clang behind you, you are as helpless as an infant in arms. To carry the idea out, your bed is covered with a rubber sheet and has slats on either side like a crib, to keep you from rolling onto the floor. The only thing lacking is an abacus and a set of plastic blocks. The nurse (it was all I could do to keep from calling her "Nannie") changes you when you're wet, feeds you through a straw, and pats you on the back to burp you afterwards. Your life is an open chart at the foot of your bed. Your most intimate functions are performed for all to see, and every move you make is eagerly recorded. There were times when I longed for the peace and quiet of an old-fashioned sanctuary behind the barn, hornets and all.
Your day starts at seven - the only institution that keeps worse hours than a hospital is the army - when the nurse tiptoes into your room to see if you're awake . . . "Well, did we have a nice night's sleep?" (Nurses are also victims of we disease.) "Are we all ready for our bath?"
This daily ritual is always performed with a great show of modesty, as though you had any secrets from the nurse by now. First you are covered with a cotton blanket. While you clutch the upper hem desperately, to keep from skidding out of bed like a watermelon seed, all the rest of the bedclothes and your nightie are whisked out from under it, leaving you quivering raw. A tin tub filled with water is placed beside you, and just to keep pretenses up your limbs are withdrawn from beneath the protective coverlet one by one. Each section of your anatomy is washed and dried in turn, and discreetly put back under the blanket again before the next part is uncovered, so you won't all show at the same time. To make matters worse, my nurse's hands were invariably ice-cold - "Sign of a warm heart", she'd reassure me - and every time one of her frigid digits came in contact with my skin I would react violently, kicking out both legs and upsetting the bathtub.
Then there are the fascinating little side trips to other parts of the hospital to have an X-ray picture taken or perhaps, if it's a red-letter day, to get barium enema. These expeditions have all the elements of high adventure. You are loaded into a wheelchair and propelled down the corridor at a dizzy rate of speed, weaving in and out between patients on crutches and sideswiping an occasional service wagon filled with dishes. Doors open suddenly as you pass, or some other wheelchair comes hurtling around a corner, missing you by inches. You crowd into an elevator with three or four more patents all bound for the same destination, and the nurses discuss one another's cases in a detached professional way while the occupants glare at each other with frank loathing. I don't know where they get this theory that misery loves company. I hated every other patient on sight . . .
Of course, a steady stream of people keeps dropping into your room to help you while away the time. Next to a summer clearance sale, there's nothing like a "No Visitors" sign on the door to attract a crowd. Since your door is invariably left open, every passing stranger halts in the corridor and peers at you with morbid curiosity. Ambulatory patients in dressing gowns wander in to sit beside your bed and show you pictures of their grandchildren. If you happen to doze off during the afternoon, the nurse wakes you up to give you another sleeping tablet.
The hospital staff goes out of its way to keep you from getting lonely. There's the cleaning woman, for instance, who arrives in the middle of breakfast and proceeds to mop the floor with some pine-smelling disinfectant, lending a slight taste of turpentine to your coffee. There's the daily visit of the young lady who comes to get another sample of your blood. She carries a tray of bottles hung from her neck, like a cigarette girl in a nightclub, and beams with anticipation as she selects a particularly lone needle and inquires: "Let's see, which side did we do yesterday?" I used to shut my eyes whenever I saw her coming, but I have an impression that she had pointed teeth and hung upside down from the ceiling.
And then there's the newsstand lady who brings you the morning paper, along with the latest gossip about your neighbors down the hall. "Number Fourteen had another relapse last night, they got her under oxygen; it probably won't be long now." "I see where the bed in Twenty-Eight is empty; I guess that means one less Herald-Tribune for this floor." Or, even more ominously: "I hope I have better luck with your room than the last three times."
Last but not least, there are the acquaintances who drop around to cheer you up. You can hear them coming all the way down the corridor, laughing boisterously at some private joke as they approach your door. They all have deep tans and are fairly bursting with health as they storm into your room and greet you with hearty humor. "Look at you, boy, you sure seem to be taking it easy." "Wish I had nothing else to do but loaf in bed all day."
They make themselves right at home, tossing a hat onto your dresser and knocking over a vase of tulips, or selecting an apple from your fruit basket and biting into it with a loud crunch. "Do you mind if I smoke?" one of them asks, lighting a cigar and blowing a cloud of heavy fumes into your face. Another rummages through the books on the table. "Say, here's one I never read," he remarks idly, slipping a half-finished detective novel into his pocket. Another slides everything off your bedside stand and sits on it, propping his feet on the edge of your mattress while he regales you with all the fun they've been having lately.
The days whiz like glaciers, and you are ready to be discharged from the hospital at last. It takes you most of the afternoon to pack. You arrived with a small overnight bag, but the get-well cards and empty vases and fruit baskets you have accumulated during your illness now fill three suitcases and a large cardboard carton. You dress yourself slowly, taking a good long rest after donning each successive garment, and let Nannie help you lace your shoes. The neckband of your shirt feels as big as a horse collar, and your suit hangs so loosely from your emaciated frame that you glance furtively at the label to see if by any chance it belongs to somebody else.
Leaning on a cane, you proceed down the hall, smiling at the less fortunate patients as you pass their doors. "Goodbye, Mrs. Hostetter, hope you'll be getting out soon." "Look out for that blonde nurse of yours, Mr. Freem." You wave a sentimental farewell to all the orderlies and dieticians and student nurses who have been so nice to you, trying to conceal the fervid hope that you'll never see any of their leering faces again, and descend in the elevator to the main floor and totter across the lobby to the street.
So this is that fresh air that everybody else has been breathing all this time. Look at those flowers growing right in the ground, not in a glass receptacle. Look at all those pretty girls in spike-heel pumps instead of sensible white shoes with corrugated rubber soles. Your hospital stretch is over. You're a free man now. All you need is a warden to shake your hand and give you an envelope with ten dollars.
Your apartment looks exactly as it did when you left it that fatal morning. Nothing had changed in your bedroom. Your brush and comb are still on the dresser; your pajamas are still hanging on the floor of the closet; the cap is still off the toothpaste tube; the magazine you were reading is still lying open on the bedside table beside a pack of stale cigarettes. The whole thing has a musty smell, like George Washington's bedroom at Mount Vermon. The only thing missing is an attendant in a mobcap and a velvet rope across the door. Your desk is piled high with mail, but you're too tired to look at it now. A glass of fruit juice would certainly taste good, but there's no buzzer to press for Nannie. Nobody to give you a back rub, you reflect ruefully. Nobody to tuck you into bed tonight, nobody to bring your supper on a tray, nobody to wake you tomorrow morning and ask you if we had a good night's sleep and how would we like our bath?
At least, you comfort yourself, all your friends will be waiting impatiently to hear all about your hospital experience. This illusion is promptly shattered. I've been trying to tell people about my operation ever since I had it, but I can't find anybody to listen. It's getting so that everybody avoids me at parties, and acquaintances cross the street when they see me coming.
That's why I hurried over here to the hospital to see you, as soon as I heard about this operation of yours. Do you mind if I close the door of your room to make sure nobody disturbs us? I'll just sit on the edge of your bed, so you can't wiggle out from under the covers and get away. Maybe I'd better disconnect this buzzer in case you want to ring for the nurse. Now, then Let me tell you what happened to me.
Corey Ford (1902 - 1969) wrote over 30 books and more than 500 articles, many of them humorous pieces published under the pen-name John Riddell between 1926 and World War II. After World War II he became best known as an editor of Field and Stream magazine, while writing spirited books and essays like the one excerpted here.
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