Keep thy hands bloody

I have a taste for blood. I prefer mine scarlet red, not blue. Spurting, not oozing. Clean and fresh, not soiled and sticky. The sight of it makes my heart race, but steadies my mind.

I’m not a vampire, but a surgeon. There is a big difference between the two. One takes life, the other restores it. One gets high, the other gets humbled. To be able to hack and slash, cut and splice, cauterize and suture, makes you appreciate the beauty of the life resting beneath your hands, not to mention the responsibility of not fucking it up.

I dread the day I no longer get my hands bloody. I dread retiring, or worse, being replaced by a robot. It’s not that a machine couldn’t do my job, even a trained monkey could do it. But by analogy, there’s a fine line between strumming a guitar and making music. The secret of being a great surgeon is not only the 10,000 hours, the constant learning by repetition, but the passion, curiosity and pressure to perform. A robot may perform to an audience of one or two a crowded stadium, and it feels nothing different, but give a surgeon an audience (especially a teary, hysterical or junior one), and she is sharper and more focused. Put her in a life and death situation and she sometimes performs miracles.

I never know what surgery is coming next — it depends on the weather (emergencies more common in outdoors summer), on the spot-decisions (this needs urgent attention), and general chaos theory (the worst surgery usually occurs at the worst time; middle of the night, at closing-time). Not knowing is a form of wisdom. Being old, I prefer wisdom the way I prefer surgery — to be short. Cut quickly and boldly, root out the problem, stitch up before the patient wakes up, and avoid death via accuracy and speed. A diagnosis before-hand often helps but is sometimes considered a luxury in the field of emergency surgery.

Death and disability are what define the boundaries of surgery. The former is the greater specter that haunts our work, but disability is also to be avoided. One should not fear surgery in the hands of someone experienced. The things that matter are success and survival rates. These quality-of-life indicators are measured by statistics, not emotions. I’d rather be under the knife of a prick who was a great surgeon than a kindly butcher. Sometimes you meet both — a kind and great surgeon (I have), but don’t bank your house on finding one before surgery is needed.

Steady hands come from a steady mind. This secret can’t be taught, only experienced, Zen-like.

I have been lucky enough to be in the presence of a number of maestro surgeons and I take my hat off to them. They go where I would never tread and calmly do what I would think impossible with a steady hand. Their fearlessness puts a smile on my face, and no doubt the patient when it wakes up. Specialists deserve all the credit and money they make and then some. They encourage the rest of us to be better and it’s good to know they are there for the SHTF moments.

Surgically, I can only play a few songs these days, but they are ones I play well. These tunes keep me happy, and my life meaningful.

Until they draw the curtains on your theater, keep thy hands bloody.

Jim Euclid is a veterinarian and writer.

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