By Jon Hillenbrand In Poetry

The ink drops to the page, ridged blackness like an inverted star its potential swimming within the fluid. I stab it with my finger and drag out its life into a box within which I fill everything that fills me. A lifetime of fear and happiness, love lost and gained, pain and pleasure fills the box like a map with no legend. Others look upon it with trepidation and confusion as I try to align the contours to true north. My divining rod was a thought of wholly perfect potential. I once taped a surgeon slicing into the inner thigh of an elderly woman only to find myself focusing on a singularity of love through closed lids as the camera shifted in my sweaty hands.

A few days ago, I videotaped another surgery but was not ready for it. I knew something was afoot when the surgeon said via the nurse, “Tell him, if he’s up for it, to come down to OR 16 at twelve noon.” If I’m up for it? What could I possibly be shooting? So after the call came early, I forced down a pint of chocolate pudding and half a litre of water. I exchanged my ID for a locker key and made my way to the men’s locker room. I entered my dimensions into the scrubs vending machine and was spit out some ill fitting pants and a roomy shirt. I secured my gear and my accelerated heartbeat as I fit the non-skid booties over my orange Merrell shoes, wishing the booties could cover the tops from blood splatter. Lucking out, I obtained an attractive surgeon’s hair cover rather than the humiliatingly ugly hairnets that nurses normally wear. I then made my way down the recently-remodeled drywall halls in search of Operating Room 16. Along the way, I pried at a mask from an overstuffed dispenser using muscles that seemed to react with an unfamiliarity to my brain’s normal torque requests. The mask almost ripped and I was afraid of sending all 100 masks from the box to the floor. So I slowed down and deliberately eased the mask out and up onto my face. The old familiar smell, like someone trying to suffocate you with insulation, was there. I bent the metal piece over the Roman nose that my mother cherishes but which took me years to ignore. I tied the top half over my ears and behind my head and pulled the bottom part tight as a skilled surgeon would do. I was proud that I didn’t fumble the knot. It’s like trying to tie a shoe while looking at the sole. There’s the room and in I go.

I’m not late. They are just starting to close, which is what they want captured on video. I’m ready and calm as an equal expert in my own specialty believing they can’t do my job any more than I can do theirs. I look at the patient. It’s a woman. It’s plastic surgery. It looks like a tummy tuck but for some reason they’ve detached the skin from just under her breasts to just above her legs. They’re stretching it above her like a thick sun dress, now staining it with ink in straight lines to align the skin properly with the mid-line of her body. They draw on the outside as well as the inside of her skin. I can see her muscles with a deep blanket of richly red blood which they divide with another line of iodine. The surgeon and his assistant are moving fast, much faster than you would imagine someone with such responsibility in their hands. It’s not reckless, but in fact a skilled determination which reminds me of well trained-athletes; a preciseness of motion motivated by wanting to keep the patient under for as short a time as possible.

The sights are horrific. I remind myself to be a professional and begin taping some broll shots of the physician’s face and eyes. I then focus in on the matter at hand. The camera’s external viewfinder is filled with nothing but red. I zoom out and ask the surgeon to tweak the lights to flood the scene rather than spot it with light so as not to confuse the “auto” exposure I have to use in such tight confines. I glance over at the nurse manning the instruments who glares that I am dangerously close to her sterile field with my unscrubbed hands and uncovered arms. I look back at the horrendous images unfolding and folding in front of me. I look at my hands. I look at the camera. I look at the table. A single circle of bloody skin rests forgotten on the blue towel an inch from my tight scrub pant bottoms. I forget to remember the love I used to feel which always carried me through this feeling in the past. It’s like reaching for a ledge as you’re falling only to discover that you have no hands.

I’m still taping as the surgeon narrates what he’s doing. I concentrate hard on his words to direct my camera and to make sense of this macabre scene before me. I’m hoping I can use logic to erase the shock of it all. It’s not war or evil. Her body isn’t being torn apart with malicious intent. It’s being carefully cut and folded apart in order to remove fat or excess skin of a pregnancy I’m guessing. They begin suturing her skirt of skin from the inside to her abdominal wall. I can’t begin to describe it. The patient looks like a wax doll to me. She has a still unreality to her as if she could be literally cut into pieces while she sleeps unaware. I feel myself going vagel, a term I’ve learned over years of shooting in hospital situations. My lack of breakfast and quick lunch are probably contributing, but two days later, the images haven’t left my mind and I know that fainting is the understandable reaction for someone not in control of a situation of this magnitude. I stick it out and do everything in my power to not fall over before the scene ends. I will my blood pressure up into my head like a fighter pilot. I clench my abdomen, I unlock my knees, I lower one of my arms from the camera but it starts to shake. My hands are wet and my forehead needs a towel. I wonder if the glaring nurse thinks I’m weak as I shift my weight off of my spine and back onto my ribs. The surgeon mentions taking a break at this point in the procedure. I step back and drop my hands to my side and cower to a pair of short stools in the corner. The staff reacts as if I am having a cardiac arrest with volume and concern. I explain that I’m just feeling faint from the surgery that I’m not used to taping. It’s been almost two years since my last surgery, not long enough. The nurses are nice to me and offer me cold wet towels for the back of my head which I refuse. The male nurse describes my face to me as, “gray with red ears and eyes.” He offers to take over and dives right into taping like he’s recording someone skydiving. He gets the surgeon to do the shaka as I shake my head at the whole thing feeling better now that I’m clenching my knees. He comes back over to tape me sitting in the corner seemingly amazed at my reaction to the whole thing and asks me questions “Real World” style.

The shoot ends and the surgeon begins to slice open the patient’s breasts from underneath. He heartily thanks me for coming down after asking me how to obtain the footage. He’s genuinely jazzed that we’ve captured the whole thing on tape and doesn’t seem to care that I had to sit down. I exit feeling like I’ve failed, but proud that I’ve captured the entire closing before nearly falling to the floor. I try to untie the frozen knots of my mask and decide to snap the ties loose instead. Back in the locker room, my graying hair and gray face make me feel like I’m staring at a corpse instead of looking at my reflection. The red eyes and ears are my only signs of life. I scrape the sweat-soaked scrubs from my body and put on my civilian clothes. I’ve never wanted to quit my job more elementally now than I ever have before. I return the scrubs to the computerized cleaning machine. It’s like a vending machine in reverse complete with motorized steel doors and high tech keycard access. It looks like these two scrub machines cost a million dollars each and all they are doing is replacing a shelf and lined garbage can. This is a perfect example of out of control medical spending but it doesn’t annoy me as all I can see when I close my eyes is the skin of that woman stretching out and away from her body.

There’s the potential for excellence within us all.  Seeing someone all torn up like that makes people seem so objectified, the anesthesitized woman dreaming the plastic dreams of a manequin.  I close my eyes again and try to imagine the stars of Kankakee which were so vivid at night, the band of the Milky Way clearly visible in the black sky.  My sister said she stopped on the side of the road to cry when she first saw them.  I stare above, my closed eyes erasing the ceiling and third floor of my apartment building.  The wind blows and the horizon flashes distant thunder.

  1. Joanne November 7, 2010

    *shudder* Jon! How you managed to stay conscious, I’ll never know. Great, graphic post!

  2. Jon Hillenbrand November 8, 2010

    Hope it wasn’t too graphic. I was going to leave a lot of the details out, but then the story isn’t as effective.


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