Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Pitch dark

Ochiche Ijeoma
Lagos, Nigeria


 Pitch dark before midnight

I had observed many surgical operations  as a medical student so I knew what to expect. The rules about changing clothes and footwear, the strict hand washing routine, the complex method of putting on the aprons, gowns, and gloves had been drummed into my ears and demonstrated countless times. I also knew how to stand on the opposite side of the surgeon and keep both hands clasped and extended so as not to contaminate them.

The first time I saw an operation I shuddered with revulsion but  did not feel nauseated or dizzy. It was an unspoken fact that the first person in the class to betray the stomach-churning we all were hiding would never live it down. The female students particularly felt they had more to prove. The boys laughingly told us that one of us would faint in the theatre and we were just as determined to prove them wrong. This was in addition to our ongoing battle to be differentiated from all the other female health care staff we were often mistaken for.

Today I was assisting no lesser a figure than my dad; a doctor with over twenty-five years of surgical experience. I had just graduated and he wanted to test my skills.

“Read up about Cesarian sections,” he said. “This one will be easy.”

I nodded, trying to look prepared. He sent me to prepare the theatre ahead of him so I could learn what the nurses did. His most experienced nurse smiled at me as I greeted her.

“Our Doctor! You are assisting today? That’s nice.”

I smiled and mumbled my thanks. The other nurse giggled at something else she said but I started walking around the theatre, making sure everything was in place.

Soon it was game time. My heart was beating like the drum the Igbos of Nigeria call Udu, which is used to summon dancers to the square. My insides were already dancing and the music had not even started.

Putting on the thick gowns seemed to reduce the oxygen saturation in the room by half. I kept asking them to adjust the air conditioning to make it cooler. Dad’s voice droned on, explaining the procedure to me.

“Pass the scalpel!”

I handed it to him and he made the incision. I did not feel any worse so I reckoned I was going to make it. I swabbed and held on to the various forceps as directed, but time seemed to be moving backwards. Then I felt it.

That dreaded breathlessness, the palpitations, the cold sweat, a taut band around the forehead…it was happening just as I feared. I tried to stamp my feet, transfer my weight from one foot to the other and breathe deeply, but nothing worked.

The feeling was spreading; from an impending twilight to a sense of suffocation. I began to think that it must be how people who had drowned felt just before they stepped into the light.

“Dad,” I whispered. “I feel sick…”

He glanced at me and nodded. “I can manage.”

Sighing with relief, I stumbled to the door and pulled off the face mask, cap, and gown. By this time it was so dark that I could not see. I had to rely on my knowledge of the hospital to make it outside. I used my hand to feel for the railing of the stairs and slid my feet carefully to find the next step.

“Doc, is the surgery over?”

I made some vague reply to the person that asked but did not see her. It was so dark. She was going upstairs. I guessed I was at the foot of the stairs from the gust of fresh air coming from the back door.

That was when my sight returned and I saw that it was actually sunny.

We never spoke about that day and I assisted my father and other surgeons many other times. I found that a sugary drink just before the surgery kept me on my feet for hours without losing my composure. I did not choose to become a surgeon; maybe I would have been able to use this story to cheer up anyone who wrote himself off after faltering.

It may be pitch dark just before midnight but at the first gleam of dawn it will all be worth it.



OCHICHE NNENNA IJEOMA is a voracious reader who loves to write. Working in the hospital is the greatest source of inspiration for her stories and she has published works of fiction. When she is not chasing after her four young children she can be found touring blogs on her phone or updating her personal blog. She lives in Nigeria with her husband Simeon, who has the privilege of reading her articles first.


Winter 2018  |  Sections  |  Personal Narratives

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