David Cook: In sickness and health

David Cook: In sickness and health

October 14th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Fragments of the thought had been squirming around my head all day, but it took the smell of burning flesh for the words to finally fall into place.

I really don't like hospitals.

On the operating table a few feet away was a leg -- the entire rest of the body was covered in sanitized blue cloth -- with a mouth-sized open wound just south of the patient's shaved and sterilized knee.

The wound was being cauterized. Little tendrils of smoke unfurled in the operating room as the scent (not unlike a wood barbecue) ran up my nose.

Really don't like hospitals.

I was hours into the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society's mini-internship, which allowed me and a dozen others to spend two recent days on the heels of a vascular surgeon, pediatrician and emergency room doctor. Wherever they went, I was sure to follow.

Coughs. Allergies. Asthma. Shingles. Broken foot. Kidney stones. Checkups. Bronchitis. Sliced toe. Fever. Stomachache. Constipation. More coughs.

I saw the pediatrician place his stethoscope on his zillionth crud-filled chest, with all the care and concern as if it was his first. I saw an emergency room doctor bend down with compassion toward every sick person he saw.

But the most visceral: Seeing vascular surgeon, father of two and Kentucky native (don't hold that against him) Dr. Charles Joels take an instrument no bigger than a No. 2 pencil and cauterize the open O -- everything was inside there, tendons, muscles, bits of flesh, bone and blood -- on the side of some dude's leg.

You know, to stop the bleeding.

"You good with blood?" he asked over his shoulder.

Yeah. Sure, doc. Blood. I'm good with skinned knees. Hangnails. A broken nose.

But seeing Joels rearrange the tendons and bone or whatever he was doing as nonchalantly as changing the oil in his car? His assistant pulling away bits of flesh, like you pick out bacon bits from your dinner salad? All the while over the background speakers, AC/DC sang "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and the smell of burning flesh filled the room?

"Don't lock your knees," someone cautioned.

I didn't.

Small aside: Clearly, I was the new kid on the block, stunned by what I was seeing. But such work is normal to surgeons and nurses, which allows them to talk about everyday things and tap their feet as Electric Light Orchestra plays in the background. So yes, it's kind of like "Grey's Anatomy" in that way.

Really don't like hospitals. Bet you don't either.

Modern American medicine can seem pretty complicated, but it really just follows a simple script:

Folks like you and me feel bad. We want to feel better. So we call the doc. And, in most cases, we get healed. Quickly. Effectively.

Like this one moment: I saw Joels thread a tube the size of a banjo string into a small hole in the groin of a patient who was still conscious - loopy but awake - then guide the tube into the interstate of arteries, while he cautiously searched for blockages on the X-ray screen above and talked with nurses about the appetizers at Sugar's.

And the patient would be back home by sundown, snoozing comfortably.

I'm not Rip van Winkle, having fallen asleep during some bite-the-bullet era of battlefield medicine and now rubbing my eyes awake to a world of heart transplants, bypass surgeries and knee replacements. These surgeries happen in American hospitals every day, and we think nothing of it.

Which is my point.

Doctors have godlike abilities to heal, using technology that is jaw-dropping and, considering that this world of ours has millions if not billions of people in it who will never know what an antibiotic is, it's good to remember how fortunate we are here in America.

How lucky-duck-lucky we are to expect the amount of healing we receive.

I hate hospitals. Because they remind us of what we try really hard to forget.

At some point, this body of ours will run out of gas. For good.

"No matter what your circumstances, you will end up losing everything you love. You will end up aging. You will end up ill. And the problem is that we need to figure out how to make that all be all right," said poet Jane Hirshfield.

There's one thing no doctor or hospital can fix: our own mortality. So maybe the medicine we really need is to figure out how to live full lives. To not hide from our impermanence. To stare at the open wound.

And enjoy the smells that life brings.