Thatâ€™s what I used to tell my interns, anyway. It was such a hoot to watch the queasy dubious looks on their faces as they glanced sideways at each other, speechless. Theyâ€™d grin at each other, sometimes giggle; other times they just looked sick, or nervous, like Iâ€™d taken a piss on the preacher Sunday morning at churchâ€”Is he serious?
They never knew what to make of me; all four-hundred Alabama-general-surgeon-pounds of me. Grinning, guffawing and carrying on, Iâ€™d hold forth in my OR on politics, pop culture, porn. Iâ€™d crack fart jokes, talk sex scandals. â€œHey, bub,â€ Iâ€™d ask, â€œWhatâ€™s the similarity between the cordatympanic facial nerve and the human vagina?â€ Kid would look befuddled or mumble textbook bio while I popped him with the puncher: â€œBoth provide taste to the anterior two-thirds of the tongue!â€ Ba doop ching! Iâ€™d grab a handful of bowels from the gal on the table, then, all professorial, Iâ€™d point out the duodenum, the finger-like gallbladder, the purple-reddish liver, small bowel, colon, rectum. â€œThis guyâ€™s full of shit, man,â€ Iâ€™d kid. They never knew what to make of me.
â€œYum!â€ Iâ€™d lick my lips as I drove the laproscope down a pink esophagus into a cavernous peristalting stomach. Interns would watch wide-eyed as the walls of the stomach throbbed, churnedâ€”rolling like a laundromat dryer, rotating the mushy remains of this morningâ€™s breakfast in an acidic puddle of pancreatic enzymes. Anyone hungry?
Weâ€™d punch a hole just above the belly button, inflate the abdomen with CO2 (you couldnâ€™t use oxygen or the burning of the cauterizer would make the patientâ€™s insides combust!), and like nature cinematographers exploring a faraway planet, weâ€™d insert a laproscopic camera with a flashlight on the end. The cavern would come alive, like the inside of a deep Martian cave, and weâ€™d project it all on screen; The surgery convertâ€™s eyes would spark alive, as if we were projecting a box-office Blockbuster, and Iâ€™d narrate: â€œOver here is the liver, down here the intestines all piled up– There you can see the stomach, hereâ€™s the diaphragm… Right through there are the lungs and check it out– Up there you can see the heart beating through the stomach wall!â€
* * *
Colonoscopies were great fun, too.
Iâ€™d be shoving a length of tubing with a camera on the end up 80-year-old Nettie Dixonâ€™s anus, and chatting to the interns about our lofty profession.
â€œSurgeons, nowadays,â€ Iâ€™d say. â€œWe spend most of our day playing videogames.â€
Iâ€™d demonstrate with my joystick, driving the camera of the laproscope deeper up the old black ladyâ€™s colon, through pinkish tunnels like marine worlds. You could just imagine zebra fish and puffers, clown fish, eels and reef sharks, or a bright yellow school of tropical tangs, swimming by.
â€œColon Warriors IV, we call this one,â€ I explained the game. â€œShit Fighters.â€
* * *
That particular morning weâ€™d just finished a hysterectomy. Iâ€™d chopped the sick sex organs out of a woman with ovarian cancer, and they were lying on the steel dissection table a few feet away. My nephewâ€™s eyes were glued to the uterus: tough thick white walls, size and shape of a pear. How the hell could a baby fit in there? The kid looked queasy in his green scrubs and facemask, nervously pacing from one foot to the other, trying not to get nauseous from the burning-flesh smell of the cauterizer– but curious too. Kid didnâ€™t know shit about science, but damned if he was going to miss a day with Doc Norm at the podunk Greenville, Alabama Hospital OR.
His girlfriend, though, the med student: She was all darting eyes and racing brain. As she peppered me with questions, you could see her face light up with that fire that said more clearly than any med-school application â€œThe human body is incredible. Give me that scalpel, show me what to do, Iâ€™ll do it! Let me cut! I want it, I want it, I want to cut people open!â€
The inside of the human body is like another planet. Itâ€™s always such a thrill to take somebody there, for the first timeâ€”like driving the Magic School Bus through the circulatory system; like piloting a spacecraft to Jupiter. Every once in a while, you would find a convert. You could see it in her eyes, as they lit on the scalpel, the forceps, the green scrubsâ€”Following the crimson line of every incision, the white fatty tissue, the thin flesh of the peritoneal cavity opening into the abdomen; Eyes glued to the laproscope screenâ€”those surreal up-close-and-inside-views of the innardsâ€”memorizing my every move. You could see it in the eyes of a kid like that: She was sold on surgery.
That particular day I had one like that: This chick, my nephewâ€™s girlfriend, sheâ€™d be a surgeon for sure, I could tell. She had that burning curiosity; that appetite for gore.
My eyes were wide like hers once too. I remember that. I remember being seven years old, obsessed with gore and guts: car wrecks and skinned knees, spurting blood and stitches. Anything that brought the insides of a human being outside was my bag. It was all I talked about, too, morbid fat kid that I was: blood and guts, scatological jokes, sex talk and potty humor. That was all I lived for.
If a bird crashed into the garage window, Iâ€™d cut its heart out with a butter knife and dissect its brain. If there was a car accident, Iâ€™d be there on my bike, eyes glued to the ambulance, to every injury, every speck of blood on the asphalt or steering wheel. That might be his brains! I remember hoping, or â€œI wonder how high blood would spurt from the jugular?â€ I hoped somebodyâ€™s finger might fall off, so I could see them sew it back on; Iâ€™d made plans to scoop up the disembodied digit, ice it in a ziplock bag for the medics. I dreamed of seeing a decapitation. At funerals, Iâ€™d gawk at the corpse. I chased hearses. At age 10, Iâ€™d dare my girl cousins to pull down their pants so I could figure out their sex-parts. Then at night in the shower, Iâ€™d poke and prod, experiment with mine. It wasnâ€™t really about sex so much as science: surgery. I wanted to cut open bodies.
This chick in my OR that day was just like that, just like me: wide-eyed over peopleâ€™s bodies. As she hovered over my operating table, she didnâ€™t bat an eye at anythingâ€”not the abdominal incision, the thick white fatty tissue, dark crimson blood that filled the fresh incision like juice from a melon. She didnâ€™t mind the sickly-Holocaust smell of burning flesh and hair from the cauterizer, or the shriveled drippy sight of a freshly excised ovary: size, shape, and color of an oyster or a grape.
She had the guts and the heart of a surgeon, I could tell.