By Clara Lu – Class of 2017
I didn’t leave the operating room the way I entered it.
I walked in apprehensive that I, as a student observer with no surgical skills to speak of, might somehow disturb the team or their working environment. Two days earlier, I had been oriented to the strict rituals necessary to preserve the OR’s sterile areas; this was a space in which inefficiency could easily hurt the patient. In such a space, I wanted to minimize my presence: I wanted neither to be in anyone’s way nor to breach the invisible yet sacred boundary of sterility and inadvertently cause harm.
I was lucky to witness a procedure far more complex than the two hernia repairs originally scheduled for the day. It lasted eight hours – barely a marathon by a surgeon’s standards, but a challenge for someone who strains to stand still. Nurses, surgeons, clerks, and anesthesiologist moved around me in a delicate choreography that seemed to slowly unravel with time and fatigue.
Amid all this, what felt most strange to me was the patient’s anonymity. Although her organs were the centre of the room’s attention, as a patient she was referred to abstractly, as if not there. And she wasn’t consciously there. It was only when she awoke that I could fully recognize this patient as a person, whole and human. After a few unsuccessful attempts to rouse her, she suddenly became conscious of eight hours of incisions, excisions, sutures, and staples within her abdomen. Somehow I had thought that enough analgesia would dampen this pain. It was jarring to learn otherwise.
The moment carried me from passive objectivity to the heavy weight of empathy. I had seen the patient’s viscera long before seeing her bewildered face, and heard the crude sound of tissues burning under cautery long before hearing her cry out in pain. For eight hours I could not come within one foot of the sterile operating table, yet now I was holding down her ankles to protect her from writhing in pain and hurting herself further.
I walked out feeling harrowed and human – no longer disoriented by the flurry of the OR and my presence within it, but centred on a singular desire to alleviate the suffering my hands had held moments before. Whether or not it was my place to do so, I walked with the patient’s bed on her journey to the recovery room. Perhaps I needed that sense of closure, that small prayer of goodbye. I don’t know how many more patients I will learn from and be touched by – how many more I will hold and release – without ever truly meeting.