My Dad Let Me Watch Him Crack Open Skulls When I Was Eight
Take Your Daughter to Work Day: Neurosurgery Edition
Back in the day, my dad, a mustached neurosurgeon named Glenn whom everyone called “Butch,” received an emergency phone call. A woman at a local prison had jumped from a bench onto the floor in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, causing blood to accumulate between her brain and her skull, a condition known as an “acute subdural hematoma.” Since my dad was on call that evening, he’d need to come in and perform surgery to clear out the blood. I happened to be hanging out with him.
“You wanna come along?” my dad asked me, smiling slightly. “You might be able to see a brain.”
“Yeah!” I responded enthusiastically.
I was 8 years old.
Since my dad was a neurosurgeon, stethoscopes and other tools of the trade were more like playthings than medical devices when I was a kid. From an early age I knew how to listen for a heartbeat and administer a patellar reflex test — the one where you lightly strike someone below the kneecap, causing their leg to kick. While I often accompanied my dad on his rounds during the weekends, most mornings he would leave for work by himself. His only steadfast travel companion was a white styrofoam cup filled with steaming hot tea and two spoonfuls of sugar; he’d carefully try not to spill it while hugging me goodbye. Before work, he smelled like Barbasol shaving cream. After work, he smelled like cigarette smoke and sweat.
The days I got to go with him were always exciting. “It was my way of showing off,” he told me over the phone recently. He started bringing me to work with him when I was 3 months old, and it continued for years. The patients loved me. I was always impeccably dressed, never more so than during the times I did rounds with him. My dresses and bows perfectly matched, and my little shoes clacked on the slick hospital tiles while we walked hand-in-hand down various hallways and into hospital rooms. I also had a deep, assertive voice for a toddler, which added to my overall cute factor. And unlike most children my age, getting to see what my dad did for a living genuinely interested me, so I wasn’t whiny or squirrelly on the job. Of course, it helped that there was a fair amount of gore involved to keep my attention.
My most vivid memory from those trips is the time my dad relieved the pressure on a patient’s brain. As he explains it now, “That’s where you just drill a hole, pop a needle in there and fluid squirts out. Some patients are awake when you put a drain in. You just numb them right up and hold them real still. You know, the ol’ ‘This won’t hurt a bit…’ ”
The patient was an older, balding man and was indeed awake during the procedure. I remember making eye contact with him while the drill was going into his skull. I couldn’t have been older than 10 at the time. I sat in one of the chairs in his hospital room, smiling at him pleasantly in an attempt to provide some sort of positive reassurance, while my dad used a hand drill to puncture the top of his head and let the excess fluid drain.
Not surprisingly, gore didn’t freak me out then — or now, for that matter — which I attribute to my father having normalized it for me at such a young age, via both his profession and his favorite entertainment. Much to my mother’s chagrin, he would show me all sorts of movies that she deemed “inappropriate” for children. (She considered this far more troubling than my dad cracking open skulls in front of me.) I saw Jaws for the first time when I was 6 years old. I watched in horror at first, then excitement. My favorite part was when Robert Shaw’s character, Quint, gets bitten in half. My dad showed me Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the following year. I couldn’t tear my eyes away when the villain ripped out that one guy’s heart; my dad couldn’t stop laughing when Indiana and his crew are served eyeball soup and monkey brains.
Watching these movies together was a litmus test for me, a bonding experience for us both and good insight into how my dad’s own brain worked.
After my dad and I got to the hospital the night he received the call about the female prisoner, a couple of nurses helped us “scrub in” for surgery. I sterilized my hands and arms with an iodine scrub and put on a pair of rubber gloves. Next, the nurses dressed me in a medical apron, tucked my hair under a hat and placed a face mask over my mouth and shoes. Because I was just 8, I was swimming in my surgical outfit.
The operating room at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City had been rigged with a sound system, because, according to my father, ever since M*A*S*H had come out “everyone wanted to be Hawkeye Pierce.” As some light music played in the background, I sat near the head of the surgical table. The patient was already out cold thanks to anesthesia. A nurse shaved her head to prepare it to be cut open. Honestly, this was the most traumatic part; in my 8-year-old opinion, looking like Ripley in Alien 3 was a far worse fate than a life-threatening head injury.
After the woman’s head had been shaved and rubbed with iodine, my father and another doctor cut off the top of her skull, exposing her brain covering, and drained all the fluid. At some point, one of the other doctors invited me to sit right in front of the woman’s head and watch all of the fluid being drained. When you’re experiencing a real-life gore scenario, it’s shocking how much more low-key it is than in the movies. Despite the severity of her injuries and the intensity of the procedure, I don’t remember there being a lot of blood. Nor did I get to see her brain. The hematoma was in between her brain covering and her skull, so all I saw was the brain covering, which just looked like slick, grayish dolphin skin.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t rapt with curiosity. In fact, I stood up on my stool and leaned forward to get a closer look. That’s when I lost my footing and almost fell onto the operating table. My dad and another doctor grabbed my arms and steadied me; then a nurse whisked me out of the room, as I’d clearly established myself as a medical liability.
When my dad and I reminisce about this moment now, he laughs at how absurd it was to bring a child into the operating room.
There were, however, some rooms at the hospital he wouldn’t allow me to go in — both before and after I nearly took a tumble on a woman in the midst of surgery for an acute subdural hematoma. My dad wouldn’t say why, but he didn’t have to. A front-row seat to a procedure that exposed a brain but saved a life was one thing. A room where he had to inform a patient or their family that, despite all of their prayers and positive thinking, things weren’t going to go their way, was another.
Brody and Hooper may kill the gigantic shark that’s been hunting them and Indiana Jones might restore peace to a quiet Indian village that’s been besieged by a cult, but for my dad and his patients, happy endings weren’t guaranteed—sometimes the people involved died.
That, he never wanted me to see.
Lara Marie Schoenhals is a frequent MEL contributor. She last wrote about how her 14-year-old Jeep Liberty is more street art than beat-up old clunker.