The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins

The People Who Cut You Open

by Michael Channing

Recently, because of my job, I had the opportunity to shadow an anesthesiologist in the operating room. I couldn't say yes fast enough.

He took me through an OR during an ongoing surgery to show me what it was like. The first thing I noticed was a large television screen above the operating theater, and on that screen was an open body cavity. I'm not familiar enough with anatomy to recognize one body cavity from another without a program, but it was wet and greasy and sort of lumpy. Tools reached in from the edges of the screen and poked at whatever organ or crevasse they were exploring. Of the doctors and nurses, I could only see their eyes or spectacles above their blue face masks. It was just like a scene from M.A.S.H.

Hot Lips from M.A.S.H.

Minus the longing glances.

After the squishy tissue on the jumbo-tron, the next thing I noticed was the set of large speakers mounted to the wall. Those speakers were blasting “Crazy Train.”

Now in case you were thinking I meant the Pat Boone Vegas lounge version with the horn section and, dear gods, backup singers—no. They were cutting open another human being to the sound of the Prince of Darkness.

This was not an isolated incident. More surprising songs showed up later during a long operation consisting of multiple procedures, each performed by a different surgical team. Each team had their own i-phone that they plugged into the PA to play their pump-up music. There were some current hits I couldn't recognize, but most were from my junior high prom. Guns 'n' Roses, Poison, Mötley Crüe, Metallica. “Enter Sandman” played as the nurse administered drugs to keep the patient asleep. The only way that could be more ironic would be to blast out “Dude Looks Like a Lady” during a gender reassignment surgery.

Think about it: When you have your gallbladder removed, a knee replaced, a stint put into your heart, there's a chance the person doing it is bobbing their head along to Jackyl.

Which I'm okay with. Personally, I don't want my surgeon listening to Bach. That's some abstract and airy stuff, celestial, intangible. If somebody's going to unzip my chest, dip their hands into my sternum, and darken their fingers with my blood, I want them to be able to cum on and feel the noize.

Rock and roll is music of the working class. It's about the everyday dirt and grit of life, the hands-on enjoyment of living and loving and partying. I'm not picturing a surgeon stumbling out of a coke orgy covered in glitter and other people's juices, but I want the person cutting me open to be in touch with the mainline joys and struggles of regular living. You hear about doctors with god complexes who feel they're above their patients, more worthy because of their education, earning power, or knowledge of what the gallbladder does. (It makes stones, right? And sometimes they slip out of place and end up in the kidneys so you have to squeeze 'em like loofah sponges. I think I read that somewhere.) I'd rather have a doctor fully grounded in the sound of common folk. So put on some guitar-heavy, drum-pounding party tunes. Rock out as you open me up. Amp it up, and maybe I'll hear it through Morpheus' veil, and I'll know I'm in good hands.

The anesthesiologist I was shadowing that day soon handed me over to his nurse. He got tired of me pointing and asking, “What's that? What does that do?”

Frank Booth gets high on the gas

“Have you ever seen Blue Velvet?”

The nurse was awesome. She showed me all the drugs that she administered, telling me what each one did. You may remember propofol as the drug that Michael Jackson famously overdosed on. That's how she referred to it, as “the Michael Jackson drug.” When the the patient's vital signs showed the propofol's effects to be wearing off, the nurse would say, “Time to give her the Michael Jackson drug.” I hope that's not the accepted professional terminology.

It's the anesthesia nurse's job to keep the patient properly sedated. Too much of a drug, and the patient slips into a coma. Too little, and the patient might wake to see herself splayed open, a group of strangers wrist-deep in her innards and lip-syncing to “Nothin' but a Good Time.” It's the nurse's job to keep the patient right on the border between death and waking. She clocks in every day and does it all day. With ease.


It was simply stunning to see it happening. A person's life was on the line, her organs open to the world, and she was completely unaware of the casual professionalism on display around her. The surgery team was so good at their job that they could perform a minor miracle and not even realize that's what it was. To them to was a job, a thing they did for a paycheck. Don't get me wrong, they were all the time at their best. No one worked at less than 100%. But they knew the job and trusted each other so well, they made it look easy, like Michael Jordan dunking on Kenny Baker.

I have some skills. I'm pretty good at listening to music, eating cereal, watching cartoons, opening the mail, changing Transformers from vehicle to robot and back. I can't do any two of those things at once, of course. I'm not magic. But these guys are good at saving lives. Day in and day out they put human beings to sleep, slit open their skin, probe or patch or remove their organs, replace some of the organic parts with artificial ones, cut out tumors, mop out gunky arteries, squeeze wayward stones from kidneys, then stitch stitch, wakey wakey, off you go. To me that sounds like magic, but to them it's Tuesday. Or any day. That is amazing.

I think that's all I have to say. There are people in this world whose job description is “save lives.” But sometimes they can't, and they have to watch their patient die. The families come and cry and huddle, and the doctors and nurses step away, perhaps wanting to do more to make up for what they couldn't, but there's someone else waiting to be healed. There's work to be done. So they go back on the clock and crank the rock, because loud music keeps them focused and walls out the sadness that never really goes away. They'll save one more life, and then they can go home.

More Minor Miracles

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing