Operating Theatre – 1962

Operating Theatre – 1962

 Like poppies unfurling in a field of ripe corn,

blood flowered among glistening pearls of fat.

It was my first sight of an incision.

Even now I can relive

that beautiful, surreal moment

before the diathermy needle

withered the bright blooms.


Gangrene appalled me with its evil black,

evil stench – how much there was.

Once I had to search through bloody soup

with a gangrenous colon writhing

like a headless snake; a clamp was missing

and I had to find it before the surgeon

stitched up his patient.


It was once an isolation hospital,

Brick-built villas amongst

tree-lined avenues and lawns.

A small electric van ferried patients

between wards and theatre.

I remember Bruno the driver,

thickset, Italian, pleasant.


Stooped figures hovered and glided

around the grounds, shadows

among bushes, behind trees.

Last survivors of the 1920s epidemic

of sleepy sickness – encephalitis lethargica

they were just half asleep now.

One woman loved men,

would lure them into the bushes.


Tuesday afternoon was for teeth

with a jolly amazon of a dentist

who hammered and sawed and cut;

I felt each blow.


Orthopedics was boring.

I stood for several hours

watching the surgeon work

through a small square opening

in a wall of green, sterile cloth

between him and the patient.

Infection in bone

was almost impossible to treat.


Mostly I just stood around,

adjusted the great lamp

wheeled patients to and fro

washed floors, wiped trollies.


I remember my scooter

a Moto Rumi Formichino – little ant,

Cast aluminium monocoque body,

engine with perfect modulation,

four foot-change gears,

no buzzing, no nasal whine.

Sculptor Domino Rumi designed and built it.

Sometimes I was asked to strap

a closely bound limb to my pillion.

On my way home I would take it to the furnace

to be tossed among the hot coals

where it would writhe as if alive.


There were unpleasant times.

I once had to bucket faeces

from a poor man constipated for six weeks

he was there for his sphincter to be dilated.

I rushed back and forth to the sluice

as the surgeon sat, unperturbed,

in the malodorous deluge.

That evening I had to clean everything.


She was thin, dry as though

life had been wrung out of her.

There were two surgeons

for a hysterectomy from both ends.

I glanced down as I walked by,

saw through her abdomen

the surgeon’s white boots

I’d scrubbed the night before.

Lunch time I went to the canteen

for pie and chips, strong tea

and the Evening News,

turning first to the short story.

It felt good being on my own.


General surgery was the most interesting,

though one surgeon was a bully, bad tempered,

the type of doctor I did not want to become.

One day he struggled to find an appendix.

Surprised, as this was routine, I looked at the X-ray.

He should have been looking on the left,

not, as usual, the right lower abdomen.

A lowly technician, I daren’t say anything,

though eventually he looked himself.


Once he operated on the wrong side

for an inguinal hernia.

The patient was called back to the theatre

for him to correct his mistake.

We are all sworn to secrecy.

Everyone he opened up,

if there was a big enough incision,

he checked for a hiatus hernia

and found one in 80% of his patients.


It was a year of standing, watching,

cleaning, helping in the anaesthetic room

where I would talk to patients.

Sometimes I guarded the machine

while the anaesthetist went for a cup of tea.

Afterwards, patients were asleep or in recovery

with a nurse in charge. I never knew

if they got well or died, what their story was.

In the evening we would sharpen re-usable

hypodermic needles for the phenyl barbitone.


A year at medical school taught me

I did not have the memory or desire

to be the doctor my mother wanted;

so I left University College and enrolled

at Enfield Tech. to study chemistry.


© Anthony Fisher October 2014