Monday, 10 October 2011


I think, often, about the surgeon who, only weeks ago, skillfully removed a four centimeter tumour covering my cerebellum and edging dangerously close to my brain stem. The night before the surgery, he visits me. He warns me there's a chance I might be deaf after the operation, or paralyzed on the left side of my face or suffer permanent loss of balance.
I ask, “Are you a good neurosurgeon.” He says nothing, but the social worker with him smiles at me and nods an emphatic yes.
“Do good work, please. Steady hands,” I said. He nods.

An hour later the anesthetist arrives – a very tall man in a dark, elegant suit. Even in my blurry state, I notice and admire his tie and sense of style – and more, the feeling of quiet about him.
“Have you had any problem with anesthetic in the past?”
“I’ve been sick to my stomach.”
“Oh,” he said, “that won’t happen. We have much better drugs now. Is there anything you want to ask of me?”
“Bring me out of it alive.”

The anesthetist is the first person I see the next day. He walks silently alongside my gurney as the orderly rolls me down to the operating room. Tears are rolling down my face and he asks, “What's wrong?”
“I’m afraid.”
He doesn’t answer, but when the orderly parks my gurney outside the operating theatre, he says, “I’ll just adjust this IV a little.” Next thing I know, I wake up in Intensive Care and  my friend Colin is telling me it is all over and has gone well. I have none of the possible deficits. Within hours I am impatient to get back to a regular hospital room.

How different this is from my memory of surgery 30 years ago when an ectopic  pregnancy had to terminated. As I was being pushed to the operating room, the nurse gave me sedatives – far too late to do anything to combat my fear or nervousness. The orderly parked my gurney in the hall and left – and just before they wheeled me inside, I overheard the surgeon complaining that his Saturday golf game was ruined .

The images of the minutes before that operation are burned into my brain – a kind of nightmare. I am lying on the gurney. Towering over me are masked people who are, I am thinking, just spending another day at work. I am the work…something broken that must be fixed. It's so cold my teeth are chattering and the lights are blinding. The anesthetist puts a needle in my vein and instructs me to count backwards. A cold heavy feeling pulses up my arm and just before I pass out, I say, “that feels like death.”

This time, though, I am spared all that. And afterwards, I am so grateful for that kindness.
Often I consider the idea that an anesthetist is like Charon, the Ferryman who carries souls down the River Styx. But this Ferryman not only keeps me perched in-between life and death but is so skilled that he can turn the boat and return me to the living eight hours later. This Ferryman is not the old, angry or ugly Charon of Greek myth, but a handsome beautifully dressed man who exudes an air of calm and kindness. Charon means, “keen gaze” and perhaps that is where myth meets anesthetist.

I wish I remembered his name. And I wonder if other patients think about how their lives are not only in the hands of the surgeon but of the man or woman keeping them alive and regulating consciousness just enough so that they don’t feel pain. I wish I could thank him for that.  


Pat Barber said...

Your tears prompted your anesthetist not only to a random act of kindness, but they also thanked him - deeply and profusely. Of this I am certain.

Roberta said...

Interesting comparison between the ferryman and the anesthetist.

Heather said...

You already have!