Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. Eight: coming together

Scenario one: "Hi Sid, this is Dave, calling about Patient Blahblah, pelvic sidewall. Is it OK to talk?" (Wondering if the patient is awake.) "Fire away." "Can you send me any more tissue?" "If I had to. Why, what's up?" "Well, I think it's just inflammation. Probably nothing, but I don't want to commit....yak yak yak..." "OK, OK, OK. I'll send you some more..." (Useless sonofabitch. I'da known he was there, I'da never sent a frozen...) Scenario two: "Room two? Dr. Schwab?" "Speaking." "Hi Sid. It's Ernie. Can I talk?... Patient Blahblah, date of birth yadayada, sigmoid resection, specimen pelvic sidewall?" "Right." "Nothing here but inflammatory cells. Histiocytes, neutrophils, fibroblasts, few eosinophils. Were you worried about something?" "Not really. Little more indurated than usual. I'm sure she has diverticulitis. Just giving you something to do." (Got some bloggers looking over my shoulder, making it real for them.) "Will you be sending anything else? You'll be orienting the sigmoid for me?" "Anything for you, Ernie. Nothing more coming. Thank you." "OK. Have a nice day." "Same to you... (click)... I love Ernie." Joanie brings the bowel clamps to within a couple of inches of each other and rotates them a few degrees in opposite directions to expose the backside of the colon ends. Using the classic 4-0 silk sutures, I place a stitch through the bowel that's at the very end of the clamp, and carry it through the same place on the other piece of bowel. Then I pop the needle off, grasp both ends of the suture in a roach clip and lay it down. Repeat at the other end of the jaws of the clamp: now I have the ends of the anastomosis controlled and marked. Next I place a series of individual silk stitches, filling in the space between the two ends, a few millimeters apart, in the backside of each bowel end. These I lay down as I place them, ends stretched out and unclamped. There's something about a needle-holder that's very pleasing, particularly the ones with gold handles. Receiving it from the scrub nurse with the needle perfectly placed, the middle of the curve right at the tip of the jaws, suture held back so it doesn't drape across my palm (if it does, it can get pulled out when I re-grab it after the first pass), I slide my index finger down the shaft of the instrument for precise control, and it fits just right in my hand. I leave my fingers out of the finger-holes, preferring to latch and unlatch by pressing them against my palm with my fourth and fifth fingers. The tip of the needle starts perpendicular to the bowel wall, and as I drive it in (just right: not too deep -- the idea is to penetrate the muscular layer but not all the way into the lumen) I rotate my hand, shooting for a perfectly circular motion. As it emerges, I grab the tip of the needle with the forceps in my left hand and pull it the rest of the way out. My left hand is steadied by resting it on the edge of the wound, which allows me briskly and accurately to present the needle to the needle-holder back end first, re-grab it in the jaws in a burst of crunchy clicks, and stitch the other end of the bowel, symmetrically with respect to the placement of the first bite.
As the needle reappears, I let go with the needle-holder, re-grasp it on the other side of the bowel, and draw it out, grabbing the string with my forceps (or keeping the forceps in my hand and using my fingers) and then pulling on the needle-holder. The needle pops off (an innovation that occurred in my surgical lifetime: time was we threaded our own needles, and the first "swaged on" ones didn't pop off) and I hand the instrument back to the scrub, needle in its jaws. She gives me another. (Among the great ((yet small)) frustrations is getting handed a needle-holder of a size differing from the first one. The motions of laying down that series of sutures is repetitive, and the muscle-memory likes it to be consistent: having to adjust to a long instrument then a short one feels like walking with one foot on the curb and the other in the street.) Sewing bowel is a circus of sensory feedback: the clicks, the pops, the vibrations in my hand as the instruments ratchet open or closed. The steely and dry hardness of the clamps against the living and wet softness of the bowel; the ever-present musty odor of an open belly, above which the air is noticeably humid. The small arteries in the mesentery -- confirming I've left the edges alive -- dancing in time to the heartbeat monitor, their steps delayed a split second from the sound. I can't help but drink it in, always, no matter what else might be going on. Not many people get to do this: I savor it while I can. Up to a point (maybe five or ten in a row), tying knots is fun. It's one exercise wherein speed and flash are useful -- if not indispensable. 

Since early in med school, prospective physicians test their worthiness by learning various tying techniques, the acquiring of which is, in some measure, a palpable sign of progress, a talisman against ever-present self-doubt. If a cowboy validates his claim on the title by twirling a rope, a surgeon does the same in a blur of flying fingers. Surely the scrub, my assistant, even the anesthesiologist have expressions of admiration hidden behind their masks as they witness my underhand, overhand, left hand, right hand, my double-handed single-motion surgeon's knot. Admittedly knot the fastest, I can hold up my ends of a suture. 

Having placed this entire back row of silk sutures, I pick them all up and hand them to my assistant. If it's Joanie, she knows how to select each proper pair by sliding a deBakey forceps across the bottom of the pair and bringing it up to present them to me (if it's a less skillful assistant, I use the forceps myself and keep it in my hand while I tie. More clumsy, but quicker than laying it down and picking it back up each time): I grab an end in each hand and work my magic, pulling the ends perpendicular to the bowel so the knot lies down in the groove between the ends of bowel, making the tension just right. ("Just right" is completely subjective, but I think it's another area of divergence among surgeons: if too tight you risk affecting circulation and therefore healing. Too loose, leaks are possible. I suppose we need the equivalent of a torque-wrench; as it is, we hope for having developed the right feel.)

The reason I keep using silk for this layer is that it ties so, well, silkily; and having imbued the knot with that just-right tension, it holds it perfectly while awaiting the next loop. If surgery is, at times, art, it's like having a favorite brush. Once all the knots are tied (three throws for silk, four for vicryl, hundred fifty for nylon), it's time to remove the bowel clamps. For colon surgery, for which there's usually been some sort of prep to empty the bowel, and which is unlikely to spill anything when unclamped, I don't place any upstream clamps. I do for small bowel surgery. Still, when opening the clamp, I have the suction ready; I give the opening a swipe with a betadine-soaked sponge. 

Theoretically dirty, the clamps go off the field. Now I tie the corner stitches, having waited until the clamps were off to avoid too much tension while tying. At this point, it's as if we have two hoses lying side-by-side, like a double-barreled shotgun, with only the touching edges attached. In placing an inner row of continuous sutures, we bring the hoses end-to-end, sealed. It's the most fun stitching, because it's the trickiest; rounding the "corners," switching from inside the bowel to outside, and from a simple right to left through and through, to left to right, inside/outside, outside/inside. [I know I'm not giving you a perfect picture. And believe me, I searched for some diagrams.

But the point is there's some technique involved, the doing properly of which ends up with a very happy sense of satisfaction, perfectly inverted bowel edges around the whole circumference.] "Is that pretty, or what?" I say when it's done. "Yes, Dr. Schwab, you're a goddamn genius," says the nurse, mentally twirling her finger and saying whoop de frickin' do.

There's a final row of interrupted silk sutures to place on the anterior surface of the anastomosis. Finished, I cut them one at a time, aiming for equal length, Goldilocksianlly not too long, not too short. With thumb on one side, middle finger on the other, I pinch across the anastomosis to confirm patency. "Drive a damn truck through it..." My thumb and finger squish against each other, padded by the spongy walls of bowel, gliding between the rubbery ring of the anastomosis. "Be closing in a couple of minutes," I add, to the anesthesiologist, so he can begin his chemical resurrection. If you don't close the mesentery, small bowel could slip through the hole and cause an obstruction. "Three-oh vicryl on a long needle-holder." Whap.

Reaching in with my left hand and bringing the edges together with my fingers, I place a stitch at the apex of the rent with my right. Joanie ties the knot since my hands are engaged; I'm re-grabbing the needle with the needle holder, having pushed it through as far as possible, twirling the instrument over in my hand to re-align it for the next stitch. I run the suture line out to the edge of the bowel, while Joanie "follows" (grabbing the suture after I've placed a stitch, applying a little tension, barely tenting it up to ease the next placement.)

Nailing a blood vessel at this point is hazardous, in that the need to clamp it off could jeopardize circulation to the anastomosis; so I pass the needle just under the peritoneal surface with each bite. Breaking a cardinal rule of safety, sometimes I grab the needle with my left fingers, steading my hand against the bowel, and hold it while I re-click it into the needle holder. "Here's your sponges," I say as I hand them all back to the scrub. Or, if she prefers, I arc them one at a time into a pan next to the table, letting the ones that hit the target speak for themselves; saying "somebody moved it" when I miss.

I remove the retractor, lift the wound edges to let the small bowel slush into the pelvis. "Irrigation." A critical intervention: I use sterile water, not saline, because it osmotically explodes single cells, like bugs or loose cancer cells. Mixed with betadine, light brown and heated, it floats some of the bowel. The final internal sensation is my hand in the warm water, gently stirring the gutty soup, then inserting the sucker over my hand and vacuuming it all out. And now, boys and girls who've waded through this with me, we're ready to close...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. Seven: resection, finally

Would you know what I mean if I describe whistling without whistling? Barely pursing the lips, making little quasi-audible windy sounds while inhaling and exhaling, in tune yet nearly silent? Unless there's music playing, that's what I do when I operate. And for reasons about which I have absolutely no clue, I nearly always "whistle" The Caisson Song. I've always wondered if anyone in the room noticed. Joanie? I suppose if anyone did, they'd eventually recognize it as a sign of contentment. "Over hill, over dale, looks like things are going well...." So it's "hi hi hee" to cut the colon free. I grasp the sigmoid again, and pull it upward then downward, looking to see where the bottoms of the loop fall, determining how much looser I need to make it before removing the damaged portion. Having mobility not unlike that of the sigmoid, the rectum can be made to stand up and out of the pelvis with a few judicious snips of its surrounding peritoneum. No matter how extensive the diverticula, they always spare the rectum. (The anatomic definition of the rectum is a little loose, not unlike the actual organ. I consider it to be the part of the colon that starts below the pelvic brim, and continues to the anus.) And since I'm doing the writing, in our patient the diverticula trail off markedly at the upper end of the sigmoid, as is typical, so the resection is less extensive. I unzip the white line a little higher, maybe up to above the left kidney, and achieve enough mobility to get point A to point B after the sigmoid is in a pan. And now, what used to be the most annoying part of the operation: clearing the chosen spots for division, and making them ready for the placing of clamps. The blood supply to the colon comes, more or less, from the center of the abdomen and radiates out like the hands on a clock. Taking the clock analogy beyond its limits, if you want to remove -- as in this case -- a section of colon from three to five o'clock, to get to the blood supply you make a pie-shaped pair of cuts from those numbers to the center of the dial. The difficulty is in direct relation to the amount of fat within the mesentery. Once in a while -- rare enough that it makes you want to be able to record it in your brain and replay it in your dreams -- you can hold the bowel up and see right through the mesentery. It takes a very skinny person. More beautiful than the wings of a mayfly, it's spectacular calligraphy on wetted rice paper, the vessels visible in their spidery and laddered connections; clamping them off -- individually, precisely -- is exhilarating and easy, as if there were no choice but to do it. Most often, though, it's hardly that beautiful. In my early years of training, the process frustrated me. Turns out, there's a trick: the fat in the mesentery nearly always thins out right at its border with the colon. Grasping the colon over the top, I can usually feel the lower edge of the bowel; pushing toward myself from the opposite side, feeling my way to that edge with my middle finger, I come at it from my side with the tip of a curved clamp. Judging the resistance to be sure I'm not punching through bowel, looking over to the other side to confirm, I push the tip onto my middle finger, and wiggle it through. "Two-oh tie." (It's a thread without a needle on it.). I push the clamp further through, spreading my fingers to let it pass between them on the other side, and then I open the clamp. Joanie directs the end of the tie between the jaws of the clamp, and I pull it back through, bringing my end to the top so it's around the bowel, and I click it into the clamp. Point A.
I repeat the process at my selection of point B. Now I literally have a handle at each end of the bowel where I'll divide it. And having made that little hole, I've opened the peritoneum on each side of the mesentery and can insert the tip of a scissor. The fat recedes. I can easily move it off the bowel surface and, turning the scissor centrally while pulling backward on my suture-handle, incise the tensed peritoneal layer with a push of the blades all the way to the root of the mesentery, from which the vessels fan out. This unroofs the underlying fat, and I can scrape at it with the closed scissors, pulling it away from the vessels hidden underneath. And there they are. To make ready for clamps, I punch through the mesentery above and below each vessel that I see. And here's a situation that distinguishes elegant surgery from the brutal: it takes only a moment to clear each vessel separately. Some surgeons do, some don't. Having gotten to the base of the mesentery, you can just "walk" back up to the edge of the bowel with a series of clamps, not really seeing any of the vessels you're dividing, grabbing them by inference, along with globs of fat. It works, as long as you don't take an enormous bite (if you do, when you release the clamp as you tie a tie, the glob may fall away and bleed.) But in my view, it means choking off a wad of fat which will die and inflame and generally add to the work of healing. Plus, it looks bad. And when you see each vessel, you can save some time by applying clips instead of clamps and ties. Which is what I do. It's like jazz (the Caisonnity-sonitty song?): winging it with regard to when I squeeze on a clip, and when I feel like using clamps and ties. (I never leave a clip near the bowel surface: it'd be in the way of the anastomosis.) Given the same curtain of blood vessels on two different days, the music might sound different, who knows? "Clip... Clip... 'Nother one... Clamp... Clip... Clamp." Get a feel. Go with the flow, the size and the nearness of the vessels. And, after all the upstream ends of the vessels have been controlled, I may or may not clamp the back-leak ends before I divide them. Depends on the size of the resection, how much I can control with my left hand. Sometimes I click a clamp ex post facto. If so, I never waste time tying them off, since it's all coming out -- unless the resection is so big that we've run out of clamps.
For a total colectomy, I might use the LDS stapler, which clips both sides of a vessel and divides it all in one beautiful gas-powered "k'chzzz," delivered from a very satisfying pistol-grip. I don't trust it for big vessels; I add another clip on the business end before pulling the trigger. One way or another, I scissor through the vessel after controlling it, usually whisking the instrument to my wrist (as previously described) when receiving the next clip or clamp. So now we're ready for the coup de grace. The sigmoid colon is free of its attachments. Holding it up, the mesentery hangs off it like a bib, maybe dangling a clamp or two. "Couple'a betadine laps." For beauty, and for infection protection, I drape the field around and under the bowel with lap pads soaked in povidone/iodine: luscious chocolate brown drapery covering the entire field, with only the bowel loop visible above it. A presentation fit for royalty. Museum quality, it ought to be in a lighted display case. With two OR lights aimed right at it, it is. It takes four long intestinal clamps: two delicate ones that stay (for now) with the patient, and two who-cares ones that go away with the specimen. The former I place with the handles aiming at my assistant, the latter toward me. Picking the first pair, she holds hers, I hold mine and I slice between them with a #10 scalpel, the one I used for the initial incision. I wipe the cut end of the bowel with a betadine-soaked sponge. Ditto for the second pair. Then I hand off the bowel, hanging like an abandoned hammock between the two clamps, drop it into a pan, along with the now-contaminated knife. I like the heft of it in my hands, the rattle and clang of the clamps and knife in the metal pan. With a total colectomy, the weight of the specimen is such that the receptacle dips in the outstretched hands of the nurse. Now that's surgery! "What should I call it?" the circulator asks. (She wants to know what to write for the pathologist.) "How about 'Dave?' " I say, as usual... Squawk... "Dr. Schwab?" "Whaawttt?" (Said in the way of a fishwife -- I think they know it's a joke. On the other hand, it's not always Dee on the intercom...) "I have Carol from 6-A on the line." "OK, transfer her in..." ".... Dr. Schwab, this is Carol from 6-A. I'm calling about Mr. Jones. He has a temp of 102..." "Who's Mr. Jones?" "He's a patient of Dr. Smith." "....Have you called Dr. Smith?" "The answering service says you're on call." ".... (cleansing breath)...I am. But, uh, we take call on our own patients during the day... (Unsaid: as we have for the last fifteen frickin' years. Frickin' answering service drives me crazy.)" "OK, I'll call him." "Great! Let me know if you can't find him." (!!!)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. Six: sticky stuff

Let's make it easy on ourselves. I haven't yet established why -- other than liking the particular operation -- we're removing this nice person's colon. So since our patient has agreed to remain exposed and to do so for all to see, I declare s/he has diverticulitis. (I'm planning a post about that entity in the near future, so for now I'll ignore the details.) (Were it cancer, the operation would be largely the same, taking a bit more out.) Most likely there have been a few prior episodes of infection which resolved with antibiotics, but we've agreed the time has come to do a little preventative work. There's unlikely to be even the slightest adverse consequence of losing this portion of the colon; and it should ensure that the attacks will end. So let's backtrack a few steps. Because of the prior infections, it's likely that there are some adhesions with which to deal: that means that a few loops of small intestine are stuck to the sigmoid colon; and the colon might be plastered to the bladder or to the pelvic sidewall. So the reality is that, before that beautiful packing job I described, I needed to address those areas; unstick the bowel so I can pack it away, not to mention freeing the colon to work on it. Early in my training, I concluded that adhesions were the bane of the surgeon's existence. Dividing them can be arduous, time-consuming, even dangerous. Turns out I was sort of wrong: given that adhesions are pretty commonly encountered, either you learn to love (too strong. Accept. Find ways to enjoy.) them or you'll hate your job. There's pleasure to be gained from working through adhesions artfully and without creating havoc. In part, it's about timing. Which is about judgment. About which I've previously written. It's been at least six weeks -- ideally considerably longer -- since our patient's last attack of diverticulitis. Operating in the midst of such an attack means things will be densely stuck, and bloody. Dissection planes will be difficult, if not impossible, to delineate. Allowing time for the acute inflammatory process to subside, and for adhesions to mature makes all the difference. Given enough time, areas of adherence will become nearly bloodless; applying a little tension makes a little white fuzz appear between the stuck organs (the fine, avascular scar tissue that remains), and the dissection through it is quick and easy. But not always. Today, the small intestine is looped on itself and tightly stuck to the sigmoid colon, and the colon is thick and woody where the infection has occurred. "Shit. This'll take a while... Sucker." I'm asking for the suction device. There are several kinds; seems like most people use plastic disposable ones, but I like a particular metal one, because the outer sheath comes off, allowing use of a thinner (five millimeters?) straight tube for the purpose of blunt dissection. Cutting into a densely stuck area means you are making the plane, and you might be wrong. Bluntly probing it allows for the (possible) opening up of natural, if swollen and distorted, ones. Plus, suction keeps the field clean while you are working through it. Here, I'm only using it between the colon and the pelvic wall, because the only possible damage is to the part of the colon that'll be coming out. Where small and large bowel are stuck together, that sort of blunt dissection needs very sparing use.
"Aha!" The sucker finds a nice plane lateral to the sigmoid, into which I can now insert my finger which, although blunter than the tube, is sensitive to when I can force things and when I need to gentlify. Probing with my left middle finger I keep the sucker in the field with my right hand, still working it in such a way as to help open the plane. With the thumb on the outside, I give a series of pinches -- one of the greatest and best-of-all maneuvers in distorted tissues: it's nearly impossible to pinch your way through something that should have stayed intact."OK, it's free. Metz."

Cutting small bowel off the colon is a little trickier, in that on either side of the dissection is the inside of bowel. It's better, since it's coming out, to leave a little colon on the small bowel than small on the colon. When planes aren't obvious, that's often what you have to do. So I'm nibbling with the teeth of the scissors, and once in a while sweeping them, with jaws shut, across the plane in which I'm working, trying that blunt dissection when it seems safe. Grasping the loop of small bowel with my left hand, pulling it this way and that to expose a new view, I'm snipping carefully and slowly where the adherence is dense, and more quickly when I can produce that nice white fuzzy plane. (That's another dictum: when going is tough, find another direction.)
Inevitably, there's a little damage to the outer wall of one or the other of the two kinds of bowel stuck together. "Have a 4-0 vicryl G.I. ready." The small bowel finally comes loose, looking a little battered, but without obvious holes. I have the legs of the loop in my hand and give it a little squeeze (like folding a sausage-shaped balloon in your hand with the loop sticking up), making the dissected area bulge out. No leak. But I put a little stitch in it anyway. Lets me sleep. Grossly, the difference between chronically inflamed tissues and cancer isn't always obvious. Both are knobby-hard; each can stick itself to surrounding areas. Scar tissue can have the same sort of pallor that cancer often does. Hmm, I'm thinking. I'm certain this is diverticulitis, but this stuff is a little hard. "I'm gonna give you something for frozen. ("Frozen section" is a quick way for the pathologist to examine something immediately, while the operation is going on: they freeze it, slice it thin, stain it, and have a look.) Label it 'pelvic sidewall...' Fifteen blade on a long handle." The scrub scrambles to load the blade, since I usually don't use that size in this operation. (When Joanie was scrubbing, she'd have had it ready, just in case.)
I slice a thin bit of the hardened tissue I've left in the pelvis. Carefully. There are big veins down there. Holding the sample in a forcep, I lay it on a moistened non-stick pad the scrub holds out to me; then she drops it into a cup, to be sent to the pathology department. A little clock starts ticking inside my head: after twenty minutes or so, I'll ask how long it's been, how come we haven't heard from the lab, did they get the specimen, what the hell are they doing down there? The biopsy site bleeds a little, and I touch the area with the suction device I've been using. "Buzz me." My assistant touches the cautery to the metal of the tube and hits the switch. Another reason I like using that metal sucker. A little spark jumps from the tip of the tube to the bleeding area, and it chars in a puff of smoke, which disappears into the tube. Once in a great while, with that move you find out very painfully that somewhere along the line you've gotten a little hole in your glove. It's a shock and a burn and it hurts like hell. Sometimes it'll make your hand twitch, and it always leaves a pinhead-sized bit of charcoal on your finger that stays for a few days. "FUCK!!!" (Startled, my assistant jerks back and drops the cautery pencil.) "Yikes. Sorry... Guess I need a new right glove."
Like a flag of defeat, I wave my hand toward the circulator (the non-sterile person), pawing at the glove with my thumb to loosen it, making it easier: the circulator grabs the cuff of my glove and of the underlying sleeve and pulls, removing the glove and sliding the sleeve over my hand. Having received a fresh pair of gloves (the circulator opens the package, peels back the wrapper like leaves, simultaneously flipping it all forward while holding the outer package in the heels of her palms, and the inner glove-pack arcs onto the back table. Some do it with more force: a line-drive), the scrub proffers a new one, and I slide in, pull the sleeve back until it's cuff to cuff, and soldier on...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. Five: getting to the nitty-gritty

There's a reason for the cliche' -- surgeon barks out the name of an instrument, scrub nurse whacks it into the hand. The reason is this: when you are focused on a particular area -- especially if it's one in which danger lies -- you don't want to look away. If you need to change instruments you lay down the one you're using, open your hand toward the scrub while keeping your eyes on the object of your effort, and want that new tool placed quickly and firmly. So you know where it is without having to fumble. So you can feel it through your glove which, when your palm is open, makes a little trampoline between the bases of your thumb and pinkie. Mobilizing the sigmoid colon from its attachments along the left side of the pelvis is one of those areas. Behind the sigmoid colon passes the left ureter (the tube carrying urine from the kidney to the bladder); causing it harm while working on the colon is a major transgression. Unless the area is distorted by infection or tumor, avoiding the ureter usually isn't difficult.

I'm standing to the patient's right, turned slightly footward, affording me better access to the left side of the abdomen. With my left hand I grasp the mid-portion of the sigmoid colon and pull it gently but firmly toward me, exposing the lateral mesentery. "Long Metz," I say (it's more of a request than a bark), and feel a smart snap into my hand. I love it. Some scrubs seem a bit reluctant really to whack it in, but I don't know any surgeon who doesn't appreciate that crackle, the absence of which means fumbling around to figure where the business parts are. "Nice," I acknowledge with a masked smile. "Old school. I want you on all my cases." Worse is bringing the instrument into view ready to cut, and finding it's been handed backwards, with the curve of the blades opposite to the curve of my fingers. (Most surgical instruments are curved, making them an extension of the hand, conferring versatility. The default direction is that the tip continues the curve of one's hand. Sometimes I want it backwards; but only if I say so.)

It's as if the body was designed with surgeons in mind. Things come apart just where they ought. In some places, there's even a dotted line. Along the outer edge of the ascending and descending colon, where the peritoneum covering the abdominal wall joins that covering the bowel, truth be toldt, there's a white line (see, that's a little in-joke: it's called the white line of Toldt.) The pull I'm providing is such that when I incise along that line, the area underneath falls away, exposing one of those little secret spots the body keeps: airy like cotton candy, areolar tissues behind the sigmoid colon open easily (welcoming because I said the secret word announcing my worthiness) with nary a blood vessel to worry or obscure the view. "Stick sponge." I take a ring forceps with a sponge in its jaws and sweep it through the area I've opened, pushing down and away. What few vessels there are slide back. The ureter shows itself and, happy to be noticed, it does the wave: peristalsis isn't limited to bowel. "Metz." I continue the incision of the white line north and south: having cleared a portion of the space behind the colon, now I can easily see where I need to go. Leaving my ring finger in the handle of the scissor, I release my thumb and rotate the instrument 180 degrees, so the shaft is resting on my wrist and inside my forearm while I do a little finger work, further opening the space behind the colon. In a quick move, I spin the scissor back into my hand, cut a little more, use the closed blades as a dissecting tool. Flip it back to my wrist. All surgeons do that move: keeping an instrument in half a hand while doing something else, then regaining full use of it. Still, mundane as it is, that "third eye" part of my brain notices and likes that I can do it. It's part of that little voice that constantly reminds me, whispers in amazement, that I'm here doing this stuff.

I'm moving my left hand up or down the colon as I dissect with my right, providing my own counter-traction as my assistant holds the anterior abdominal wall up and away. My left index finger is working at the edge of the cut I'm making in the peritoneum, exploring and exposing. It all takes only a minute or two and the entire left side of the sigmoid colon is opened up, and I can elevate the bowel a couple of inches further than when I started. Now I can begin to decide where I'll be dividing it, having converted the S-shape into a C. It means the whole loop can be removed, and the ends will be very near each other; which is one of the reasons I like sigmoid resection. It just falls into place...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. Four: packing for the trip

Inside the belly, everything is slippery. The peritoneum is a glistening layer of self-moistening plastic wrap, enveloping the surfaces of all the organs, and the inner aspect of the abdominal wall. Undisturbed, the intestines coil and slither, reptilian. Watching waves of peristalsis makes me smile: there's something always entertaining about those moving contractions, following one upon another, gurgling, surprisingly tight bands of tension moving along the length of the bowel in a wonderful concert of muscle action. Like those gifted prestidigitators and their moving coins. Exposure -- providing excellent view of what you're doing at all times -- being a sine qua non of efficient and safe surgery, that slipperiness isn't necessarily your friend, amusing as it may be.

Having taken three posts to get to the peritoneum, it's now time to pass through it. In some people you can tell before opening it that things will be OK: the membrane is translucent and you can see through well enough to recognize that the omentum or bowels are sliding around underneath, unattached. Nice. So you make a little knick with a knife, taking care not to cut anything on the other side. Classically you and your assistant grab a bite of peritoneum with forceps, picking it up, allowing a cut away from underlying structure. When you can see, you can save that step. (Fast surgery is not really about fast hands: it's about an accumulation of countless little quanta of efficiency.)

Having made a hole, you might grasp on either side with clamps, elevating it, then zip a scissor downhill, never moving the jaws. Or pull it open further with two fingers. Or slide your finger under it and open it with cautery, your finger protecting the bowel, and the glove protecting your finger from getting cooked.

In the case of prior surgery, where you are re-entering a old incision, it's an entirely different animal: time slows down; you might have to try several different spots for entry, trying to find even a little area to which bowel is not attached. The smallest free zone can make all the difference. Finding none, dissection can be tedious, laborious, frustrating. But since this is an imaginary patient, the innards fall away as soon as we puncture the peritoneum; entry is a splashless dive. (Note to do-it-yourselfers: taking a moment, before cutting it, to sweep your finger across the peritoneum to separate it from under the muscle layer makes sewing it back up much easier.)

That slippery bowel wants to be everywhere. Like everything else for which there's not a perfect solution, many techniques exist to pack it and keep it out of the way. With a stem-to-sternum incision, as for some vascular operations, you can put it in a bag. Tethered to the back-side of the abdominal cavity, whence comes the blood supply, nearly the full length of the small intestine is free, frontward. You can slide your hands in from each side, heading under the bowel and down to the root of the mesentery; rock your hands backward, seemingly lifting all the guts right out of the belly.

You can't go quite that far, but you can expose the bottom side, allowing your assistant to lay the open mouth of a large plastic bag, not unlike one that might be in the waste-basket under your sink -- complete with a tie. Releasing the bowel gloppily and gurgily into the bag, feeling it slip-slide over your hands, is one of those surprising sensual experiences that surgeons get to have. Tie the tie snugly enough to keep the bowel in but not enough to choke it off, and enjoy the show as the bowels wiggle through the whole case.

But we haven't made that sort of incision. In fact, the smaller incision is an aid in the typical packing process: using laparotomy pads ("lap-pad," "lap-sponge" or "lap," as in "gimme a moist lap" -- the saying of which in another context ((particularly with "you" in front of it)) might deserve a slap in the face but herein is a request that the scrub hands you a moistened sponge for packing) folded in whatever way you were taught or in a way you finally figured out yourself and tucked here and there, you find the integrity of the uncut abdominal wall above the incision holds those pads in place. (Every once in a while, I need to write a sentence like that.)

Bowel has a way of squirting around the edges of packs, so taking a moment at the beginning to get them right saves a lot of pawing and repacking just when you don't want to have to. Another of those quanta of efficiency. So here's what I do: I reach into the pelvis with my left hand and grab a handful of small bowel while my assistant is holding onto the sigmoid colon -- our ultimate target -- and lifting it up. I may have to replace my right hand over the left, and then the left again over the right, until I have the guts up and out of the pelvis and exposed down to the root.

The scrub hands me a succession of lap-pads, moistened and folded in half. With my right hand, I slide a sponge over my left, which I then withdraw, leaving the end of the pad tucked under the bowel at the root of the mesentery; the body of the pad is over the bowel, and the top end is tucked under the abdominal wall, with the blue tag-string out of the wound. (That keeps you from losing it.) Working from the right side of the pelvis to the left, it usually takes three or four pads fully to cover and tuck the bowel and keep it out of the field.

A nicely-arrayed field of white has replaced the ruddy-brown bowel, leaving in view only the sigmoid colon, as if displayed on a table-cloth. Some surgeons use fully-unfolded pads: they usually don't have the turgidity to hold things steady; invariably, it seems, a loop of bowel finds its way into the field. One of my first partners used to roll pads into balls and stuff them all over the place. As I said: having lots of methods bespeaks imperfection of all. But mine worked pretty darn well.

Most surgeons use some sort of self-retaining retractor to hold the incision open; if so, it gets set up before the packs are placed. There are some pretty ingenious erector-set gadgets that can do the work of several hands. When possible, I like to omit such retractors because I think the steady pull at the wound edges makes for additional post-op pain. But more often than not, some form is necessary; for this incision, I like the old-fashioned, quick and easy Balfour retractor. Simple and nearly foolproof, it also makes a businesslike ratcheting sound when opened into place. Downside: I often manage to get my glove caught in the mechanism when I release it at the end.

If I can get away with having my assistant hold a simple retractor during parts of the procedure, I'm happy. Retractor or not, I put moist pads -- usually soaked in a mixture of saline and betadine -- over the wound edges, to keep them from drying out, and to protect from contamination. And it looks very tidy, which has value if for no other reason than my own enjoyment -- the apprehension of beauty has no prohibited venues.

Positioning matters. Working in the pelvic regions, tipping the patient head-down gets gravity on your side, helping to keep the bowel away. "Can you give us a little Trendelberg?" I ask of the anesthesiologist. (The term is "Trendelenberg," but I like to save time.) Of all the things to have named after you, it seems a body position is a weird choice, particularly when all we're talking about is taking a flat table and tipping it. Most used for a patient in shock, the Trendelenberg position is a mouthful in an emergency. "Drop the head, drop the head, dropthehead goddammit!!" is more to the point. On the other hand, I suppose to have some complex position named after you..... "Honey, feel up to a Schwab tonight?" But I digress.....

So we're ready to conduct the business for which we came: getting rid of the sigmoid colon. Sigmoid means "S-shaped." Our target organ is curled on itself and it's time to uncoil it. Doing so is among the more satisfying maneuvers of colon surgery; a little magic, a little danger, couple of tricks here and there and we should be able to unlatch it from its position along the left side of the pelvis and bring it right up into the incision where it should give itself up to us gladly....

[The intercom honks: "Dr. Schwab, I have the ER on the line. Can I transfer them in?" "Do I have a choice?" "Ha ha." "Sid? This is Pete. I've got a lady here with an acute abdomen. You're on backup, right?" "Must be, or you wouldn't be calling. What's the deal?" "Just letting you know. Sending her for a CT. I'll get back to you. She seems fairly stable for now." "Great. Thanks." Deep breath. Long sigh...]

Friday, May 18, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. Three: parting the curtain

Traction and counter-traction: along with maintaining excellent exposure, that is one of the fundamental principles of operating. It's Newtonian: equal and opposite. In nearly all forms of surgical dissection, there's a need for some pull in the opposing direction: tissues that are a little stretched-out, that are under some tension, fall open more easily when dissected. Plus, it's a form of stabilization, another obligatory component of safe and precise work. One of the great pleasures of operating is having an assistant who understands, so that actions are coordinated and balanced. Constantly in motion, it's an ever-changing dance, as if we were tethered together by a silk cord, leaning slightly away, each move I initiate perfectly mirrored, keeping the cord perfectly taut, no matter where I choose to go. Ideally, it happens in a constant flow, with no words needed, part of the music of surgery well-done. In fact, when the orchestra is at full throat, my assistant knows where I'm headed and presents the field before I've finished moving. "Beautiful," I say in appreciation.

In making the initial incision, I provide my own counter-traction; left hand pulling backward as I draw the knife forward in my right. In a very long incision, I move my left hand to another point, thumb and fingers arching astride the fresh gap, simultaneously pulling backward and spreading outward: three-dimensional traction. In deepening the wound, my assistant and I pull across from each other, often against a moistened sponge I've placed on either side of the incision just before starting, left hands pulling in exact balance (else you might miss the midline); the knife is in my right hand, a forceps might be in hers. When there's an especially thick layer of fat, we put down our instruments, dig both hands over the edge of the wound, and pull hard against each other -- sometimes gruntingly hard. Magically, the fat parts like the Yellow Sea (or was it...?), right and exactly to that desirable middle stripe.

I wish I were more ambidextrous: in a pinch, I can cut or sew with my left, but I'm much better with my right. Still, there's a lot of subtle stuff to be done with the left, whether it's holding a forceps to grab something I'm cutting, or doing some fine noodling: moving the fingers as if on a keyboard, to expose and apply tension to an area that I'm working with the other. Imagine being tasked to find a pea hidden within a bowl of pasta, given a tweezer in one hand and using the other to explore. You'd move your fingers this way and that, stroking and spreading, using your medial or ulnar fingers (remember the anatomic position?) to hold stuff away as you work your way around with your thumb and index fingers. Wouldn't you? Can you imagine doing that in a fellow human-being? Let me assure you: it's stupefying! As is the recognition, while doing it, that I've acquired (and am allowed!) the touch, the ability to do it; to reach inside someone and with delicate motions of my fingers, to expose, to analyze by touch, to forge a way for my eyes to follow. Nor are these entirely unfamiliar acts: you've arranged flowers, sewn cloth, kneaded bread. You've twisted a screw, coiled a hose. You've bathed your baby, touched a lover. Your hands and your fingers are sensitive as mine, you've been guided by feel, you've closed your eyes and still known where you are; breathed in odors, heard intimate sounds of the body. The wonder is in the context.

The skin falls asunder from each side of my knife like red-robed palace guards, bowing and backing away, sweeping their arms in a curlicue of grace: "You may enter." [Joanie says, "I had a nice weekend, kids came over for a picnic........]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. Two: cutting in

The preliminaries are over. Sponges, needles, and instruments have been counted and checked, their number recorded on a whiteboard on the wall, as well as a clipboard. The checkoff is a comforting hum of words; the tuned machinery of the workplace. As the bottle of local is opened and poured into a sterile bowl on the back table, the expiration date is read aloud. "January, Two Thousand Ten." "We'll be done by then," I say, as usual. I look over the ether screen and ask the anesthesiologist, "OK to start?" "Dig in," he says.

Scalpel blades come in myriad sizes and shapes. #15 for a delicate cut, needing controlled curvature, like around the edge of an areola. With those little pokes for insertion of laparoscopy tools, it's #11. This being the real deal, I use a #10 blade, for its deep and long belly; a serious cutting device, but wieldy. There are bigger knives.

The act of incising human flesh is one of moment, never light, never routine no matter how familiar. Having thought about the exact location and length -- not always standard for a "standard" operation -- and having spoken to this person only minutes before; having made and accepted an awful commitment, asking for and taking trust; still, to take a knife in hand and with it to open a wound is a startling event. I never feel as focused, as intent, as responsible as when I make that first cut. I'm aware of transgressing, of forced entry, of crossing barriers, physical and ethereal.

It's like passing through an arbor draped with not entirely familiar vines, ominous and appealing simultaneously, not quite seeing to the other side until they're pushed away, with resistance. It's OK. I've been given the key, evidently I'm allowed here. But is such a thing possible? It remains a mystery. My breaths are shorter and harsher than normal; my pulse perhaps a few beats quicker; it never fails to excite me. Yet (almost) always my hands are steady. At this moment, there's nothing else. Later, as it goes, the air gets lighter.

How the knife is held is dictated by the task at hand: sometimes, in the finger-tips; others, like a pen, pinkie down on the patient as a steadying unipod. For a full-fledged incision, my last three fingers curl around the handle, thumb alongside the blade, index finger on top, right over the belly of the blade. As I make the cut, depth is controlled by that index finger, sensing the resistance and the ease with which the knife penetrates. Not everyone is the same: some skin is thick and leathery, some nearly translucent and feathery, like a summer roll. One has to adjust, on the fly, eyes bright and shiny, central also to the feedback loop.

I push hard, aiming to swipe through the skin and fat and to the muscle, even through it, in a single motion. A perfect incision, to me, is one that exposes the peritoneum with the first sweep. It's not always possible (only in the slender), or safe, and safety is paramount. But time spent doodling in an incision is time wasted and probably deleterious. (I've mentioned it elsewhere: few things surgical bug me as much as the tendency of many surgeons to incise partly through the dermis, to finish it off with electrocautery, and then to cook their way through the fat layer as well. It takes a ridiculous amount of time, fills the air with stinky smoke, and leaves behind a thin layer of dead tissue which, theoretically at least, interferes with healing. When everything else important has been studied, I'd guess a comparison of that skin technique with straight-through sharpness would show a cosmetic disadvantage as well.)

The best surgery is the most efficient: wasting the least amount of time, leaving behind the smallest possible areas of damaged tissues. The first cut sets the tone; it signifies where you stand. That brisk and controlled savagery is exactly what's called for; a promise fulfilled, senses keen. Cautery is one step removed; it's a barrier between you and your patient; shorthand, cheating. (As you'll see, I use it all the time, and extensively, when it's the most efficient option. For the initial incision, it's wrong logically, physiologically, economically, historically, metaphorically, artistically, poetically.)

I think if you watched an incision being made in super slow-motion, you'd see the skin indent under the knife and, as it is drawn forward, a wake of skin rise slightly in front of the keel of the blade. If there were sound, it would be a shishhhh; if it were music, it would be strings, not brass. Laying the scalpel nearly horizontal at the outset, as soon as the skin is penetrated the handle is elevated a wisp, bringing the blade's belly more fully frontward to the pull. The thickness of the skin is revealed as it falls slightly away. (In a belly bloated by ballooned bowel, the skin springs away from itself, as if to run from the explosion to follow.) Interesting, isn't it: seeing skin in cross-section? Bleeding -- especially in the midline -- is most often minimal, easily controlled with a little pressure, the placing of gauze along the edges. In some, time must be taken.

Classically, little clamps were placed, their noses snipped just to the open end of the bleeder, to be followed with a fine tie. Delicacy required: the purchase on the tiny amount of tissue was tenuous; tying the knot after the clamp was gone, if done too artlessly, saw the whole thing pull away and the bleeding resume. "Off!" the surgeon would say to the assistant, signaling the release of the clamp just as the index finger met the knot. Then holding each end and throwing more knots with such grace as to cause not a waver of the held tissue, increasing tension equally on each end as the knot is tightened -- too much in either direction and it pulls off -- laying down a couple of loops until secure. If you can do it, you might be a surgeon. (The time-honored practicum: tying a knot around a single match in a matchbox, never lifting it out nor bringing it to the edge.) But having proved it long ago to my satisfaction, I use cautery now, like everyone else. Still, there are a few right ways and lots of wrong ones.

If you fire off the cautery in a pool-let of skin-blood, the blood will eventually boil and blacken, and maybe the coagulum will plug the leak. Some will keep up that untidy turmoil for a disturbingly long time, to their own "goddammit"s, red continuing to seep around the edges of the black. Some move the tip around nearly randomly, waving it a little, like shaking a dick at the end of a piss. If that works, it probably didn't need it in the first place. Or they paw at the bleeder with a sponge, then zap, then paw some more. Whack, buzz; whack, buzz. If it's brisk, it doesn't work: by the time you take the gauze away there's enough blood to obscure the exact spot. But if you place a gauze and roll it away, you can hit the bleeder right as it appears. Or you have your assistant lift the edge of the skin with fine forceps, then grab the bleeder with a forceps of your own, and touch the cautery to the metal. A spot-weld. Precision.

The six-pack muscle, the rectus abdominus, is separated vertically in the midline by a fibrous band, the linea alba ("d" in the illustration). In the healthy, it's broad and thick, and the much-loved target of a vertical midline incision, because it's nearly bloodless, tough enough to hold a good stitch, and affords entry into the abdominal cavity without cutting muscle. By "broad," I mean a few millimeters. It's possible to miss it when cutting down to it; in fact, it seems I always did as a junior resident.

The first time I cut into it, I was attempting a paramedian incision (rarely done: ordered for the experience by my attending), aiming NOT to be at the midline. In time, I got the hang. The only incision that has a chance of being that "perfect" one, cutting down to (but not through!) the peritoneum in a single heraldic swath, is through the upper midline, in a person not much overweight. In the lower abdomen, the place chosen in our imaginary patient here, the white line (which is what "linea alba" means) becomes less distinct, a little more narrow, and pastier, because the rectus muscle loses its posterior fibrous covering. Cutting into the lower midline is gooier somehow: less sturdy. But do it we must.

And since we've digressed from the particular cut of our aim, let's also take a moment to get real: surgeons may or may not be crazy, but there is a form of schizophrenia at work. Those things I said up there? Totally true. The ever-present awe, the sense of responsibility and privilege and focus, the third-person look at myself in perpetual disbelief: all true, all the time.

And yet the mind allows room, simultaneously and up front, for the mundane. Along with the tonal beeps and the tubular hisses, as I pick up the knife and make the cut, there's this sound: "So Joanie, how was your weekend?" Omnipresent OR humor: usually crude, often -- when the audience is known -- sexual. Despite being taught to do otherwise, irrelevant conversation is the norm. Just so you know. And music. Personally, I'm neutral about it: I usually enjoy it, with an omnivorous taste. But I can live without it. And when things get gritty, I ask for the music to go off, and for an end to extraneous talking, for as long as it takes to smooth things up. Speaking of talking, I seem to have blabbed all the way through the incision. Let's get more detailed, and back on point...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Operation, Deconstructed. One: preamble

With as much detail as is useful, and as descriptively as I can manage, I'd like to relate what it's like to do an operation, from before laying knife on skin to after placing the bandage. I'm a general surgeon, so I choose sigmoid colectomy as my prototype; it's always been one of my favorites, although the particular operation isn't the point. The idea is to let the reader into the operating room as much as possible. I figure it'll be several parts. Let's see how it goes.

First stop: the pre-op holding area, where my patient -- and most often family -- and I exchange greetings minutes before the operation. If I've done my office-job well, the patient is likely to be relatively calm and optimistic. I touch a hand, a knee, a belly, say something like "Seems like a great day for a colon resection." To the oft-said "Hope you're not hung over, Doc," I respond with a raised hand, deliberately shaking, saying "Steady as a rock." Laughs all around. Then more seriously, "Any questions since we talked, anything you want to go over again?" And a reminder of the plan: "You'll meet the anesthesia person any minute. You'll be sound asleep for the operation; we'll be making the incision right here. I'll numb it up with local before we're done so when you wake up there should be little or no pain. It does wear off, though, in a few hours, and we'll hook you up to a little push-button device so you can give yourself pain medicine whenever you want it.

I expect you'll be up walking in the halls tonight. ("Tonight?! Really??" "Yep! It's the best thing there is for you. Gets the circulation going, gets those lungs working.") [To the family:] OK, I figure the operation will be give or take an hour, little screwing around before and after, I'll come out and talk to you soon as we're done -- probably an hour and a half. Don't get worried if it's a little longer. [To the patient:] See you in the OR." Exit, stage left.

I like that part. I suppose some of it is the awe-inspiring "I'm here and you're there" sort of thing. But really, it's about re-establishing rapport, giving a final injection of confidence, and, of course, making sure everyone's on the same page. Because for elective surgery I've hand-carried the paperwork the night before, there's rarely the cold shower effect of "Uh Doctor, we can't seem to find the lab work..." Occasionally I get the rhythm-interrupting "Did he get a preop EKG?" to which I reply "Yes. See, it's right here in the chart." Annoyometer needle rises just above zero.

As important as any of the steps is being there when the patient goes to sleep. I feel terrible on the rare occasions (emergency call, etc) when I'm not. (Reassuring as it may be, of course, the patient likely won't remember any of it.) Often, I'm already in the OR when they get wheeled in, because I've gone in to check that the instruments I need are there, maybe magnanimously tie up the scrub nurse's gown, bother the anesthesiologist. I help the patient onto the narrow table, checking to make sure the rear end is south of the table-break, just in case we need to change position for a staple-job. I don't expect it in this case, and prefer to have the patient flat, instead of in the modified lithotomy position. But the equipment's in the room. While the anesthesia person is doodling around, I talk with my patient. Small talk or big.

My acquiescence to the time it takes to get off to sleep is inversely related to the acuity of the case and the number of operations I have scheduled to follow. And to whether my patient starts looking around nervously: why aren't I asleep, am I supposed to be asleep by now? As I see the mother's milk of morpheus going in, I say "Have a nice dream. We'll take good care of you."

The oxygen monitor beeps rhythmically in time with the heart and tonally in relation to oxygen levels. During a tough intubation it can descend an octave or more. I stand by, quiet, helping if needed. Pull out the cheek with a finger hooked in the mouth to widen the view; push the trachea this way or that. During the operation, those sounds are beyond my notice, unless they change.

As I've revealed previously, I'll likely do whatever shave is necessary, as soon as the patient is asleep. Today it'll be a lower midline incision. A few pubes might have to go, but I'll keep it to a minimum. If it's a male, I usually put in the urinary catheter if I want one. The reason is mainly to keep the bladder from filling up and getting in my way. Pretty routine a while back, I used them much less as time went on. I let the nurses do the women.

If I expect to be working into the dark recesses of the pelvis, I put on a headlight. Hold my thumbs together at the level of comfortable vision, make sure the beam is focused just there. Tighten the headband too tight, get a headache half-way through the case. All of this seems like pretty grown-up activity. Gray as I've gotten, I still can't quite believe I'm enough of an adult to do this stuff. Am I really allowed? Something there is that loves a dress-up party. But this is the real deal, and I never got over having a part of me watch the whole process in amazement, from just across the room. Yes, I think it's pretty cool.

The scrubbing ritual, done with intent, but also with that third eye, watching: grab a pre-packaged brush, impregnated with my favorite flavor of soap. Given a sufficiently brisk squeeze, it rends itself open with a very satisfying "pop." The champagne cork that starts the party. Done right, heads will turn and nod appreciatively. Hit the knee-controlled water switch. Quick on and off, just to get wet: I don't like to waste water. It used to be a ten-minute scrub, timers even, right above the sink. Now, couple of minutes will do, unless you get caught up in conversation. Orthopedist at the next sink: "Hey Sid, what's the real surgeon doing today?" "Yeah, general surgery, the queen of the surgical sciences. Little colon resection. How about you?" "Elbow. It's a living."

There's a favorite nurse scrubbing across the hall: "Bridget, what's the deal? Hiding from us today?" "You know I'd rather be with you. They have me doing eyes." "The dark-room. Bummer." House-keeping aide walks by: "Dr Schwab! What's up?" "You are! How's the kid?" All this while cradling each finger with the flexible brush, flipping it from the scouring side to the soft side, one at a time, zooming the gap between each finger ("Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, whoops Johnny, whoops Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny"), then down the arm. (I like seeing my arm-hairs getting soapy. Again, from some distance...) Bang the water-trigger once more, dip a hand into the stream, scooping it upward, fingers apart, elbow last. Then the other. Knee-knock the water off, back my way into the OR door, dripping water off the elbows. (Now we have hand-sanitizer goo. Couple of pumps and the whole thing's over. Still do the water-zen first case of the day.)

Some OR doors have handles, requiring a certain agility of the backside to part them. Needing more than one push definitely diminishes the drama of the entrance. The scrub nurse flips me a towel: it's lengthily rectangular, allowing the use of one end for one hand and arm, the other for the others. From the fingers down, elbow last; then laying the dry end over the wet hand, once more. Stepping into the gown, both hands in at the same time; little shoulder-shrug to get it settled, little rub of the elbows at the waist to seat the cuffs. The scrub holds the right glove open with two hands (except Jeanne: she always proffered the left. Her way, I always thought, of laying down the law. Or maybe some sort of superstition. She never told me.) I dive my right hand in, stretching the glove half-way to my elbow, and she lets it go with a satisfying snap. (Missing a finger hole is a spell-breaker -- less likely if the scrub waits half a beat before the up-move. Maybe she'll tug on the empty finger as if it were a deflated cow, or maybe I'll fix it after I get the other glove on.

With that one, I can help: taking my gloved right hand, I pull the left cuff outward as I couldn't with an ungloved one. Bigger target, deep dive, no worries. Someone snaps or ties the back of the gown together -- often the anesthesiologist will leave the machinery to do this; some, I think, consider it too demeaning. There's a belt-like tie attached to the front, with a cardboard tag on it: the tag can be held even by a non-sterile person. I fold it for strength, hand it with my right hand to the designated holder, and pirouette on my heel, left hand down and rotated back and outward to catch the tie at the end of my spin. That's brought the gown fully around me, and I tie the tie to another tie hanging on the front. Sometimes the cardboard slips away before the ballet is over, and the tie drops: another flicker of the annoyometer, but not a big deal. I lean to the left, the errant belt falls away enough to be grabbed and tied, unsterile, behind. Not perfect, but ok unless I plan to back into the wound.

Draping the patient -- a daunting task during internship because we used multiple cloth drapes and each surgeon had his own way of doing it, differing wildly among various surgeons for the same operation -- is now a simple final step before commencing. Pre-packaged, shaped with various holes for various operations, containing adhesive strips at the edges of the holes, they simply require laying them on the middle of the patient and unfolding, first north and south, then east and west. It's a choreographed move, as my assistant and I move in unison on opposite sides of the table, each with a hand on the edge of the drape -- her left, my right -- fluttering it down the legs, then over the head.

The anesthesiologist clips the head end to IV poles. Rhythmic gymnastics. Once every seventy-five or ten cases the drape gets handed to you wrongwise, causing the parts designed to cover outstretched arms to end up dangling instead at the feet, semaphoring stupidity. They actually have a little humanoid cartoon on them to show proper orientation, but these things happen... Finally, suction tubing and cautery pencil wires get distal ends handed off, proximal parts secured to the drapes. Back when we used steel towel clips, the sturdy clicking in place was like a signal of readiness, a one-minute warning. Now, it's velcro straps that come attached to the drapes.

Ka-chickachick supplanted by zzzrrrrrippp. And finally comes the sshhush of the suction hose as it gets hooked up; like a cleansing breath, it's the last sound heard before I ask for the scalpel. More often than not, we clamp the hose off for silence until it's needed. When that's forgotten and remembered later, the sudden quiet is a surprising lift, like removing a heavy pack at the end of a hike. But now, we're ready to go...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Personal Paradox

If there's such a thing as mild OCD, I think I have it. For a surgeon, I'd say that's generally a good thing. In my practice, I was pretty obsessive over making sure everything was as it should be: the right instruments available, all lab and paperwork hand-carried to the OR the night before surgery. I liked the look of putting sutures in perfectly spaced, each bight the same size as the last. I took certain stairs, walked the hospital halls in ways that required the least amount of retracing steps, achieving maximumfficiency. Back stairs to the top floor, down a particular hall where the first patients were, then to the nurses' station, then another hall, down the front stairs to the next floor. Like that. The down side is that I often over-reacted if things weren't just so: if during the thousandth time I was doing a particular case, the suture (for example) that I always used wasn't readily available, it could drive me nuts. Less in terms of going ballistic (oh, there were times) than getting stressed out.

If I walk by a book on a counter, I'm likely to square it off with the edges. In other posts I've mentioned my on-timeliness, to the OR, to the office, seeing a patient. Arriving only on time is in fact, far as I'm concerned, the same as being late. I'm usually early. Running behind in the office upset me greatly; enough that it was a pretty uncommon occurrence.

On the other hand, it's not a problem for me to say it's all BS and not rearrange books. I have no weird hygiene or grooming habits. In fact, one time in the youth of my practice, my mother asked my wife why she didn't get me to dress better. (Different generations!) My desk was generally a moderate mess. So maybe it was closer to OK than not: compulsive about details of patient care, mildly and controllably crazy in a few personal things, and so careless about how I dress that I saved a lot of money on clothes. When science gets to the point of dialing in various levels of gene expression, I volunteer my OCD gene as a starting point for surgeons. Tweaked here and there, it could be just about perfect.

[Confession: I realize this particular post is mostly fluff. I'm killing time while I work on a series of posts, the aim of which is to detail what it's really like to do an operation, from start to finish, before and beyond. I think I'll have a couple ready by next week. Like the TV show "24," it'll probably be scripted on the fly, starting the series before I know if it works or turns out well enough...]

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hair's the Deal

Among my duties as an intern, back in those dark days and nights, was to order (and, not rarely, to do) the pre-op shave on patients. "Nipples to knees" was the typical order for vascular surgery patients. (Might be a good name for my next book, or for a rock group.) In addition to shaving hyper-extensively, we also generally did it the night before surgery -- now shown to be a bad idea, because the inevitable nicks became little soup bowls for bugs. The closer to the time of an operation the shave is done, the lower the incidence of wound infection from skin organisms. In fact, evidence suggests shaving not at all might be the best idea, even in the Tony Sopranoesque. Once in a while, in my practice, I had a guy (always a guy) show up for a hernia repair having hacked himself way more extensively than necessary, even into the, uh, saccular parts, leaving terrible tracks. Claiming only the wish to help, I guessed it was a matter of not wanting just anybody mucking about "down there."

But the most compelling argument against shaving is it itches like crazy when growing back. Having more complaints about that than about pain when I'd see people post-op, I came to shave less and less over the years. More than that, I generally shaved my own patients, because I could rarely get others to do it as minimally as I did. My aim was to keep hairs out of my way when working and to leave room for a (small as possible) bandage.

I think some OR nurses thought I had some sort of fetish for shaving. Not so. If others shaved people as minimally as I did, I was fine with it. Once I came in to shave my sleeping patient, heading toward the pubes for a groin hernia. To my surprise they fell away en mass; a well-intentioned aide had shaved already, and when the anesthesiologist noticed, he said "Oh no, you shaved Sid's patient!! Put it back! Put it back!!!"

Monday, May 07, 2007


Speaking of physical diagnosis -- and I just was -- I'll never forget one guy at whose feet I sat as a med student on my pediatrics rotation. Double boarded in radiology and peds, he used to come up to Cleveland from Akron to hold forth on rounds, periodically. The ritual was that after he'd given a talk of some sort, the staff would pop up a few Xrays for his analysis. Cold.

On one occasion, we had a child admitted with acute glomerulonephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys, in kids typically due to strep and potentially very serious. What was shown to the doc was just a chest Xray. "Watch this," the peds resident said as she leaned over to me. "Bet he gets it." To me, it was an absolutely normal Xray.

"OK," he said. "Looks like a male, about eight years old.' [It was.] "The vascular markings are a little prominent [to me, they were perfectly normal], like early heart failure. The heart is slightly enlarged [in my eye, it wasn't] but the contour is normal, so it's not congenital heart disease. The most likely cause of failure in a child this age, absent primary heart disease, is glomerulonephritis."

Wow. I'm pretty sure he wasn't in on the diagnosis. I'm also certain as I can be he's among a tiny few who could have diagnosed kidney trouble from a near-normal chest Xray. Up to a point, I can relate, or at least understand how it's possible: not only was he a really brilliant and experienced physician, he had a certain context in which to proceed. I got good at reading mammograms and belly films. Better, I'd say, than radiologists because I knew more about what was going on.

I remain a complete incompetent when it comes to looking at ultrasound images, especially of the breast, and I admire those who can do it. It also makes me uncomfortable to have to rely so completely on someone else's interpretation, because I've found, to the regret of myself and my patient, that they're occasionally wrong about what's solid and what's a cyst. In looking at films, I always want to know what the radiologist has to say; but I reserve the final interpretation for myself. Can't really do that with ultrasound. I took a course, the point of which was to get surgeons to do their own ultrasound-guided breast biopsies. I decided I'd never have the time to get good enough at it.

Some people have special powers. Ernie the Pathologist could look at a slide of a few cells for a nanosecond and say "It's cancer." Pathology was one of my worst subjects in school. To me, everything looked like liver. I did carry my breast aspirate slides directly to Ernie, however, and we'd look at them together. Eventually he got me to the point where I'd have pretty much of a clue. Never enough to make my own calls. Not even close.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Soft Touch

They told me in medical school that the diagnosticians of old could thump on a chest and detect a tumor as small as a centimeter. I'm not sure I ever believed it, but I've always had a love for the art of physical diagnosis -- of touching, feeling, listening to the body, and coming to an understanding. As technology invades and pervades, that art is becoming almost (not quite) superfluous and antiquated; an amusing throwback. Look at that old guy, touching his patient. Sweet, really, if a little creepy. Hasn't he heard of ultrasound? Actually, I have. A realist, I've ordered a ton of 'em. Still, I think that more than anything else what makes a doctor a physician is the ability to use the senses to figure out what's going on. It's a wonderful combination of book-learning and the accumulation of experience, of sensory attunement to another person. It's very cool.

In med school, things are revealed one or two at a time, and each finding seems like a little miracle. I remember sitting across from my roommates, getting the hang of an opthalmoscope, using -- as is necessary -- my left eye to see into their left, my right to their right. Frustrated by the red reflex, finally getting past it to see the eye grounds: the retina with its tell-tale vessels and their disease-revealing crossings of each other. The best of the best: the optic nerve. Thumb the wheel to get focus, get the depth right, and there it is. Breathtaking: now, I'm a doctor. Hearing the split heart sounds? Well, I went into surgery.

If you strum a plastic comb next to your ear, the sound it makes is similar to that of obstructed bowel. When examining for appendicitis, it's best to use one finger: point tenderness -- pain in one spot and less right next to it -- is a tipoff. Those things are textbook stuff, teachable. Gauging the tension of an abdominal wall by touch and percussion, judging the sound of the thump -- that's art, based on assimilated input over a lot of cases. If you want to assess perfusion in shock, feel the knees. Looking for subtle differences in circulation to the feet? Place each hand on a foot, hold them there, then switch: differences in temperature will be doubled. Tricks, picked up on the street. They have ultrasounds to see if your bladder is full, measure the exact number of cc's of urine in it. I can get close enough with a thump and a touch. So could you.

No matter how much data I'd checked ahead of time -- labs, Xrays, chart notes -- I never really got the true sense of things until I saw the patient, touched him or her, listened to their words and the sounds of their bodies. Saw their faces. Smelled the air in the room, or their bandages. And yes: poked my finger into their rear end. To the patient -- who knows? -- perhaps it seems like ritual, like posing. Going through the doctor motions. Or maybe it's mysterious and awesome, like a conjurer, a mystic, a whole-body palmist.

Following a careful history and physical exam, I've taken out appendices without the benefit of an ultrasound or CT scan. Same with gallbladders. Even colons, sometimes. Nowadays it feels a lot like insanity, hanging out there too far. Know what? It is.

Every once in a while I'd catch myself, still with my hand on a belly while sitting on the bed talking to the patient and family about my impression, my recommendations. Long-since having garnered the information to be had from palpation, I somehow liked to maintain that touch. As inspiring as it is to be allowed to operate, literally to enter into a bond and to breach boundaries of flesh that only a few are privileged to do, the physical exam has a special intimacy of its own. A unique moment of connection with a fellow being heightened by practical knowledge and distilled experience, it's way more than ritual and show and it ought never to be fully supplanted by magnets and beams. Drawing on all the senses, and the ability to synthesize them; bringing together knowledge, skill, and instinct, as human as it gets, the exam depends on who we are and what we're made of. There's really nothing like it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Four Minutes of Fame

When our local NPR station has its (barely tolerable) fund-drive, one of the gifts you can choose is a license plate cover that says "I'm not laughing at you, I'm listening to Car Talk on KPLU." It's true: it's one of the rare shows on any medium that makes me laugh out loud. I've listened for years. So the other day, I have a little problem with this beater Bronco I have and it occurs to me....

Small fantasy fulfilled. Having gone to their website, dialed and redailed many times; having finally got a recorded message and left an account of the issue; having waited through a couple of weeks of silence, I recently got an email from a familiar (to listeners) name: Louie Cronin. "We're interested," is the gist. There followed a couple of phone-tag attempts at connection, and eventually we were talking. Louie, it turns out, is a girl. Mary-Lou, she said. I'd always assumed it was some cigar-chomper in a green eye shade. Come to think of it, I still can't say for sure...

Anyhow, she fills me in on how it works: they tape on Wednesdays, I'll need to be available from 7:30 AM till 10. Pas de problemmo. She'll call fifteen minutes ahead, give me some final instructions (don't read from notes, make it concise), put me on hold while I listen to the show, waiting for the familiar "Hello, you're on Car Talk." And a couple of weeks ago, it all happens.

I awake with a headache, probably unrelated. Coffee, cereal, ibuprofen, morning paper. The phone didn't ring until 8:15, and there was Louie, my pal. They'll be taking a break, she says, then give the answer to last week's Puzzler, then they'll be talking to Ronnie from California (I only know one Ronnie from California, and he's dead). When they sign off on her, I'm on. The connection, she says, isn't up to snuff. Same phone we were on before? Well, it's a portable phone. I do have a wired phone: old-timers do. She calls back on the other line and seems satisfied. On hold then, I stand up, sit down, unable to pace as much as I'd have liked. I hear Tom and Ray doing their shtick, and one of them blows a line. They keep talking, but re-do the line a couple of times. Then they're on break, making small talk which I can hear. Now I'm an insider. Cool. Then it's Ronnie, talking about her boyfriend and empty gas-tanks. The automotive kind. Finally, it's "Hello, you're on Car Talk."

My problem, it turns out, is pretty simple as far as they're concerned, but I thought it went well nonetheless. They were more interested in the name of my town. (OK, I may have fudged a little: we're exactly one hundred feet from the city limit, but we're in the school district of the town with the cooler name, and my wife has been on its school board for ten years. We almost never go downtown to the bigger city, hanging out mostly in the named one. So it's legit, right?) I don't think I sounded like a total idiot, but I may have said "Indian" instead of "Native American" when explaining the city name. And I'm a liberal!

Within ten minutes of the end of the show, I get an email from another producer, Doug Mayer -- also a familiar name. Good news and bad news, he says. The good is that it's unlikely I've permanently soiled my reputation; the bad news is not all conversations make it on the air. He links me to a thank-you photo. It feels like a form-letter email, so I'm not completely humiliated. On the other hand, do I tell my friends to listen, only to be absent from the show?

I just got an email from Louie. I'll be on tomorrow. Far as I'm concerned, I'm being bold in announcing it, because I'm still not sure I didn't sound like an idiot.


Moving this post to the head of the list, I present a recently expanded sampling of what this blog has been about. Occasional rant aside, i...