February 21, 2010

Buñuel in the O.R.


There were five people in the small operating room when they wheeled me in. The surgeon was my ophthalmologist, whom I’d been seeing for twenty years now. The others, however, were strangers: the anesthesiologist, a burly, loud, swarthy fellow with a heavy Brooklyn accent; another anesthesiologist who was neither loud nor swarthy; a nurse; and a small German whose purpose there was never made clear.

            As soon as they got me on the operating table and positioned the way they wanted, they all started going to work on me at once. Someone stuck an IV needle into my wrist. Another clamped something on my fingertip to record my pulse. Another wrapped a blood pressure cuff around my arm, another began swabbing the right half of my face with iodine and some other cold antiseptic goop. And they all had instructions for me, which they all shared at the same time.

            “Give me your arm.”

            “Don’t squeeze your eye shut—why are you squeezing your eye?”

            “Could you move three inches down?”

            “Raise your head a second. Now move it to the right a little.”

            “I need your other arm.”

            “If you need to scratch your nose, don’t do it. The doctor’s going to have a scalpel to your eye, and you don’t want to hit her hand.”

            “Could you move up an inch?”


“If you need more drugs, just give the word and I’ll knock you out.”

            Someone else taped two oxygen tubes just below my nostrils, and all the while everyone kept repeating “right eye, right eye,” to one another. I was hoping this was just standard procedure, that it wasn’t the result of some little mistake they’d made on the last patient. It seemed a bit unnecessary, given that earlier that day someone else had taken a magic marker and drawn a big black “x” on my forehead above the right eye, leaving me looking like Manson on a clumsy day.

            By this point I was already making a mental note to have a few words with those people who’d told me this would be “a piece of cake.” “In and out,” they said. “No muss, no fuss—fifteen minutes, then you go home.” Bull. Shit.

            “Jim here is a very famous writer,” my doctor told the rest of the surgical team as someone pasted a gauze sheet across my face. There was a square hole cut over the right eye.

            “Guess what? I don’t care,” the anesthesiologist said. “What, that means he writes for the Post? I like Hemingway.”

“Nothing wrong with Hemingway,” I mumbled through the gauze.

            “Hey, what was the name of your first book?” the doctor asked me.

            “Uh . . . Slackjaw,” I said, still worried about that scalpel, and thinking it might be better if everyone just focused on the whole “eye-cutting” business.

            “That’s insulting, isn’t it? To slack-jawed people I mean,” The anesthesiologist said. “Not very p.c. is it? Hey—where are you from?”

            “Brooklyn,” I said, immediately recognizing my mistake. Never admit that to someone like this.

            “No you’re not,” he shot back. “I mean originally.”

            Jesus Christ, I thought, could you just operate on my fucking eye?

            Not wanting to piss off the man who could, with the turn of a knob, plunge me into a coma, leave me screaming in agony, or kill me, I admitted that I’d been born in North Dakota.

            “Figured it was something like that. Where you live in Brooklyn?”

            I wasn’t about to step into that one. “I’d, umm . . . rather not say,” I told him, as my body was being adjusted and wrapped and positioned.

            “Park Slope,” he guessed with a sneer.

            “I guess.” He was going to turn me into a vegetable, I knew it.

            “Yeah,” was all he said.

            Help me, Jesus.

‘Well I thought his first book was great,” the doctor said, as she taped my eyelids open. She then took a clamp straight out of A Clockwork Orange and propped it open further. The intense surgical lamp above me was switched on, and I nearly screamed. I couldn’t close my eyes or turn away. It was like staring into the sun. But I couldn’t scream. If I screamed, that scalpel would be driven straight into my sinuses.

            At one-minute intervals, the nurse put drops in my eye, which then ran down my cheek. It tickled, but I could do nothing about it.

“Okay, you’re going to feel a little pressure,” the doctor said. That’s what they always say when they’re about to do something terrible, like amputate a foot or insert the camera.

            Through the intense white glare I saw something, a vague triangular shadow, and knew it was the blade. I tried not to think about it, staring around it into the light.

            As this was happening, the medical staff around me began joking and gossiping, and a radio in the background was playing a five-song block of Bangles hits. I was far too conscious of everything.

            In time—and perhaps this was the anesthetic working—staring at the light became less painful. In fact, it was almost like looking into a cheap, unbalanced kaleidoscope. Small, irregular, jagged dark shapes appeared and gathered in one corner, then vanished. Soon, different dark, irregular shapes began gathering in another corner before they too, vanished. This was not what I was expecting to see as she cut away parts of my lens. But it was better than a wash of red.

“Your cataract’s behaving very well,” she said.

            “Good,” I mumbled.

            “Yeah, I may not like your books very much, but your cataracts are behaving well.”

            What the hell? I’m laying there with needles in my arm and a blade in my eye, and both the surgeon and the anesthesiologist are taking potshots at me. That wasn’t very fair. But what could I say?

            I could tell when the lens was completely removed, because suddenly the hot light screamed into my head unchecked, and still it was impossible to turn away. The people around me were already talking about the next patient.

            “So what do you think we should do first? The cataract or the detached retina?”

            Umm, I thought, maybe we should finish what we’re doing here first, how’s that?

            The doctor nestled what I presumed to be a lens removed from an executed murderer into place and began sewing it down into my eyeball.

            “You might feel a little pressure again,” she said.

            Haven’t you people ever heard of lasers? Why hadn’t anyone told me about this?

            About forty-five minutes after being wheeled into the operating room, I was unplugged and wheeled out again, then parked against the wall in a busy corridor. A clear plastic athletic cup had been taped over the assaulted eye.

Around me, Russian interns—an awful lot of Russians work in that hospital for some reason—were jabbering excitedly because a famous Russian television actor known for playing doctors was paying the hospital a visit.

Ten minutes later, my own (hopefully real) doctor stopped by my gurney to give me some instructions for the next few days. No heavy lifting, she warned me. No nose-blowing, no driving, no air travel, no bathing, no sex. (Honestly, though, if I’m not allowed to bathe or blow my nose, I don’t think sex will be much of an issue anyway.)

            Before she left, I stopped her. After all, I had been insulted and mocked as I lay there helpless on the operating table, and needed to know one very important thing.

“What about smoking and drinking?” I asked.

            “Oh,” the doctor told me. “Those should be fine.”

“Okay, we’re all set then, thanks,” I told her. She was either the most irresponsible doctor in the world, or—for my money—the greatest.


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