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...