When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
- Lao Tzu
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I cut up people for a living, he would say airily. It was a fine opening at social engagements, evoking the required mirth while being accurate, even if disturbingly so. Patients and their kin on the other hand often remarked that it sounded flippant, even lacking empathy. When this was pointed out to him by a senior doctor,he retorted that patients came to him because they trusted his s Kokills as a surgeon. Furthermore he needlessly added,if its empathy they wanted the psychiatrist was just next door to his. That in short,dear reader was our surgeon- clearly good at his job,still not experienced enough to be arrogant,but well on his way, clinical in action and speech both.
Do not invest emotionally in your patients,he had been taught in college. It was a lesson he had taken to heart. He never let emotions interfere with healing. As was to be expected he became better as the years went by. Cases that other surgeons avoided or approached with extreme caution, did not faze him. He used the scalpel and cautery as others would a pen, there was rarely if ever,any hesitation or doubt. He was always in the right plane, organs were approached cleanly and cleared, adhesions divided, vessels anticipated. His operating field was textbook, just as he had been taught. Emotions never intruded in his dealings with patients either, again, just as he had been taught. While people talked of the surgeons hands he knew it was the brain that was the real master. The hand merely followed orders from on high. At some stage marriage and a child followed. He tried hard to bring in emotions and empathy into the marriage but failed. His brain was too hard wired by now. The same brain which made his fingers talk so eloquently was surprisingly inept with words.
Domestic discussions were stilted. While some part of him desperately wanted to tell his wife how much he loved her, he found himself unable. His son grew up with an aloof and by now largely absent father as he spent more time in the hospital to avoid the unpleasantness at home. One evening he returned to a note on the table, next to a cold dinner in an eerily silent house. His wife wrote,she was leaving because she couldn’t take it anymore. He was distraught and relieved in equal measure. As some years rolled by the angst abated.
The lady was twenty five odd, with advanced tuberculosis when she was referred to him with a perforation of the gut. He would have liked to build her health up a bit before surgery but there was no time and she was taken up the same day. The husband was explained in detail about the poor prognosis. The case was worse than he had anticipated, but he mopped and cleaned, snipped away and cut, ligated and anastamosed with practiced ease. When he had finished ,her innards were in far better shape than they had been.
Her husband and son-a boy not much older than his own now absent son kept vigil outside the ICU. Whenever he went they were there, the man with drawn eyes,unshaven and quiet, his son clinging to him. Though he hoped against hope he had an inkling about the likely outcome of the case and a couple of days after the surgery she went into shock and in a few more hours had slipped into a coma. He sat besides her and watched the thin ashen once pretty lady, mother of a boy not much older than his own son, breath no more. Unlike a defeat elsewhere,when a surgeon is defeated someone dies. Formalities done he stepped out to inform the husband who had been primed and prepared for the worst. There were no histrionics just quiet acceptance. After a polite period of silence as there was nothing further to add, he turned to leave when the son scared and unsure asked hesitantly, ' did ma say anything before going'
It is said more in jest that surgeons are rarely stumped. For a moment this one was. But the hesitation was brief, too brief for the child to have noticed. He turned walked back towards the child and sat on a chair.’ I’m sorry’, he said to the boy'I nearly forgot' . Yes, your mother did say something he said. 'she said to tell you not to worry and to study hard' she said that many times he added, 'tell him to study hard'. ' I came first in class 2’, the boy said smiling. 'I know'he said' your mother told me' . The boy beamed. The husband looked at him with gratitude as he finally rose to leave. He patted the little boy’s head and left. They never saw each other again.
The nurse’s noticed first that the ward rounds were taking longer. He started talking with patients. Asking them their name. Even their children’s name. He talked about disparate things including film gossip. He showed an interest in things that had never interested him earlier. He even spoke to patients about their deepest fears before surgery. He told them that till he was around they had nothing to fear. They believed his quiet words. He was rarely angry any more. In some strange way he seemed content. I asked him about the change. No one else did, I know for a fact. I asked if he was atoning for lying to that little boy no older than his still absent son. I really did. Every time I stood in front of the mirror to comb my thinning hair, I asked him, and he would smile back at me and I noticed myself smiling too.