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