Operating-room allies always come in handy during surgery
By Edward Chiao
Feb. 17, 2003 9:00 p.m.
If there was ever a medical dictionary of bad words, it would
have to include the word “Surgery”.
Last week, I found myself thinking constantly about the S-word.
I was inside the operating room at the UCLA Medical Plaza, lying on
an operating table, staring straight up at the ceiling, my left arm
completely numb. Surrounding me were two doctors who were ready to
insert four screws into my broken left hand.
The way I see it, there are two kinds of doctors in every type
of surgery. There are those who cause pain, and there are those who
relieve pain caused by the first type of doctor.
So I turned to the third doctor, my ally in the operating room,
and pleaded with him.
“Just put me under. I would rather not be awake when they
start,” I said to Dr. Wohlstadter, the anesthesiologist.
“They’re making the incision now,” he informed
me, peering over the curtain.
Too late. For the next hour and a half, the two surgeons were
going to straighten out a spiral fracture in my left hand, the
result of a freak basketball injury while trying to steal a
There was a curtain separating my head from the doctors
operating on me. The curtain may have kept me from seeing the
carnage, but I could still hear what the doctors were saying.
“It shouldn’t have to be this hard,” I heard
one doctor say early on in the procedure.
“We needed that (tool) over 20 minutes ago,” another
impatiently told a nurse.
Then I heard an S-word come out of one of their mouths ““
and they weren’t yelling “Surgery.”
None of this really worried me. Despite the setbacks, these were
still world-class doctors staring at my hand.
But the sound of a power drill got my attention.
“What was that?” I asked uneasily. Who needs a power
drill for surgery?
Instead of an answer, I got more sedative.
I tried to avoid thinking of bone fragments flying out of my
hand, but a little extra anesthesia wasn’t going to distract
me from the sound of a drill threading four holes into my hand.
Sensing the anesthesia wasn’t going to calm me down, Dr.
Wohlstadter started talking to me.
“How’d you break your hand?” he asked.
Can doctors be talking to patients during surgery? Isn’t
there a rule of silence to let the other doctors concentrate?
I told him I broke it playing basketball, still wondering if we
were going to anger the surgeons.
“So are you a fan of UCLA’s basketball team?”
A disappointed fan.
Maybe if we whispered, it’d be ok. We wouldn’t want
to distract the doctors operating on me. Not now, not with a power
drill in their hands, I thought.
We ended up whispering back and forth for a good 20 minutes,
reflecting on the glory days of UCLA basketball, and discussing the
problems with today’s team.
And just like that, I was at ease again. All the drugs in the
world weren’t going to settle me down, and Dr. Wohlstadter
knew it. So he tried a different kind of sedative ““
conversation ““ and it worked.
Suddenly, the broken bone, IVs, blood, four screws, and power
drill were an afterthought. Before, I couldn’t see what the
doctors were doing, and now, I wasn’t even thinking about
My ally had come through for me after all.
But Dr. Wohlstadter wasn’t my only ally. There was a
nurse, Laurie, who fed me pain killers and oxygen, and calmly
monitored my abnormally low heart rate ““ all while answering
simpleton questions like ““ what is this round thing on my
There was another nurse who unsuccessfully tried to calm me down
before the surgery, asking me about my nine years of piano
experience and my 12 years of Chinese school.
Then there was Renee, the physical therapist, who warned me to
look away when she cut off my bloody splint ““ and brought
over some pillows for me just in case I passed out anyway.
And I can’t forget the unnamed receptionist from the UCLA
hand clinic who tracked down my phone number and took the liberty
of scheduling an appointment for surgery ““ something I was
trying to put off until the last minute.
Even after all this, surgery is still a bad word in my
dictionary. But now I would allow for an asterisk next to its
definition. Surgery is never pleasant, but if you can’t avoid
the S-word, it helps to have allies like mine.
The South Campus column runs on odd weeks during Winter quarter.
E-mail Chiao at [email protected]