Go to the heart of danger, and there you will find safety.
– Kenneth Mattox (and the Ancient Chinese)
The first time I stepped into an operating room, I was twelve. My friend Ryan’s mother worked as an obstetrical nurse, and she offered to take us both to watch a c-section. We put on oversized scrubs and were quickly ushered into a small operating room. I remember the baby as being too big and too grey as it was wrestled from the manmade hole on his mother’s belly. “My birthday gift to Mom…” the surgeon had whispered to me with a laugh as he carved off a large piece of fat and dropped it next to me with a plop. It was around the time of the guided tour of the placenta that I began to feel light-headed.
It wasn’t until medical school that I put on a mask, gown, and gloves and stood at the OR table. One day on a congenital heart surgery rotation, the operating team was smaller than usual and I was called to the first assistant position. “Take these” the surgeon had said as he passed me two long, thin, DeBakey forceps, “and retract that” he instructed, pointing toward the incision. I obeyed, pulling the paper thin pericardium gently away from the steadily rocking heart. I barely breathed. It was too beautiful, and too impossible, and too breakable.
Today, I stood at the table alone. It was a metal tub, designed to channel pooling blood away from the patient, down a tube, and toward a grate on the floor. On it lay a small boy, scalp bare and body a ragged patchwork of injury and healing. His bed had caught fire from an unsteady candle, and what little skin had not been destroyed we had taken from him for grafts. The rest of the team had come and gone, and I finished placing pig skin around his hand before wrapping him in many layers of gauze. I worked not as an observer, but as Surgeon, one who owns the successes and the failures of each cut.
For me, this is the beginning of a year of opportunity. I will learn all that I can, about everything I can. I will wear the scrubs that I wore that first day I stepped into the OR, then so large but now unremarkable. And I will prepare, for the time that I will stand at my own table, alone in the heart of danger.