| McIndoe operating at East Grinstead by
Anna Zinkeisen, 1944.
Percy missed his regular train that morning, the one that would have given him a comfortable half-hour cushion between his arrival at the station and “knife-to-skin” time at the operating theatre. He felt his anxiety levels rising within him like bile as the train neared the hospital. He was generally of a nervous disposition, given to perpetual inward quivering, but theatre days in particular gave his inner axons an almighty twanging. He hit the change rooms and shed his civilian clothes for prison-green scrubs, knowing full well that most of his daylight hours were destined to be spent in the freezer-like confines of Theatre 5, the operating lights beaming down on the nape of his bare neck. Hunched over the exposed entrails of an unconscious patient, he was ever conscious of their silent interrogatory glare, inducing beads of sweat beneath the head-scarf covering his thinning pate, slowly melting away the facade he had constructed over the last two grueling years of training to reveal the shameful truth; that he was in fact a poet trapped in the garb of a surgeon.
“I want to see you doing some cutting today, Percy!” his red-headed Amazonian consultant boomed at him in the scrub bay between procedures, her eyes boring into him. “You can start the right hemi next on the list.” Percy gulped. He was quite happy to play a supporting role as he had done all morning, tugging on retractors, slurping up blood and secretions with the suction nozzle or even closing the wound after the consultant had finished, de-scrubbed, and left the battlefield. He was even happy to hold up a patient’s warm butt-cheek as the consultant navigated the serpentine colonoscope around the dark narrow tunnel of the colon. It allowed him the freedom to let his mind wander, to contemplate the wonders of the human body manifest within the glistening mucosa that lined its sewers. He did not want to take center-stage and yet, given that job interviews and exams were looming, it was inevitable he would be called upon to do so someday. The Amazon’s eyes glinted behind the transparent plastic shield of her visor. “The first cut is always the hardest,” she purred. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Be decisive. Remember your anatomy.”
The patient’s Betadine-swabbed abdomen lay trustingly before him, a pristine surface he was about to brutalize. Percy inhaled…the soul’s joy lies in doing – the lines of the poet his mother had named him after suddenly sprung to mind, spurring him onward. Gripping the scalpel like a pen as he had been taught, Percy made a swift, firm incision above the umbilicus. Blood spurted out as if from a geyser. The monitor started beeping and flashing red. “What the…?” the anesthetist dropped his crossword puzzle and sprang out of his chair at the head of the table. “Dammit man, you’ve gone into the aorta!!” the Amazon said, losing all hint of composure, “Page vascular stat!” she yelled at the nurses. Percy stepped away to let the vascular surgeon have his spot. As he stood on the margins, gazing down in horrified wonderment at his bloodied gloves, watching them huddled over the patient, the nurses rushing around with swabs and diathermy probes, he felt a strange sense of calm descend upon him. He had just made what his friend Jay would have dubbed a “CEM” – a career-ending move. Ah, but our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Percy de-gowned and de-scrubbed.
SHAMPA SINHA, MBBS, MPA, is a former Australian diplomat and World Bank public health specialist, currently working as a medical registrar in Australia. She has published poetry, travelogues and fiction in a variety of publications in the US, Australia and India. As a medical student, she was selected as one of five students internationally to blog for The Lancet. She has a keen interest in indigenous and global health issues and palliative medicine.