SUNY Buffalo - South Campus
So, for the last two days I have been in an ATLS (Advance Trauma Life Support) class. Basically, the class teaches the principles of caring for the trauma patient. We had a series of lectures, intermixed with small group learning sessions, a cadaver lab, and then an oral exam and a written exam. It's been a wonderful respite from the geriatric service. For the last two days I have been reviewing a lot of the lessons learned during my surgical residency. As we went through case scenarios, or during particular lectures, my mind would drift back to the patients I had seen or operations I had performed. Several times I had to bring myself back to the current lecture before I lost track of where we were.
One of the funnest parts was the cadaver lab. Suddenly, for just a moment amoungst the familiar smells and sounds, I was back in medical school, excited about pulling back the plastic over the cadaver and beginning to explore and appreciate the gift that someone had given - the ultimate gift of themselves. What was interesting, and just a little eerie, was that one of the participants, an EMT who was auditing the course, actually knew the patient. He said that during his time as an EMT, he had picked up the patient and transported them to the hospital multiple times. We performed various procedures on our body donor. I remember in medical school, on the first day of anatomy lab, my group standing around the shrouded body; staring down, uncomfortable, not liking the smell, trying not to think about the fact that soon we would be meeting our first and most important patient.
Not just that. We all knew that soon one of us was going to have to pick up a scalpel and begin the dissection that would continue throughout the next 4 months of our lives. I have to admit that I was the one that picked up the scalpel and made the first incision; offering a small apology in silence to the body donor. Later, as a third year medical student on my surgery rotation, I remember being allowed to hold the scalpel and make the small incision to remove a small fatty tumor. I remember thinking that the skin was so much more pliable, so much more... alive. Then, during my last rotation of my fourth year (an emergency medicine month if you can imagine) I was allowed to place a chest tube in a patient who had a pneumothorax (collapsed lung.) The surgeon walked me through the procedure. A cut into the skin overlying the 5th rib on the side. Then a deeper cut into the muscle. I then put a Kelly clamp into the muscle layers and started spreading them. Slowly. The surgeon would come over from time to time and check my progress by sticking a finger into the wound. "Keep going. A little faster, I want to go home soon and get some dinner some time tonight," he teased. When I got just above the pleural layer overlying the lung cavity, he told me to spread and push. He was standing at the back of the room joking with the E.D. attending when I broke through the pleura, and there was a sudden, surprising, rush of air. He heard it and said, "What did you just do!!?!?!?" Then he laughed at the startled, and just a little frightened look on my face and said, "Very good. Keep going." I grabbed the chest tube, placed it into the chest cavity, and then he showed me how to sew it in place and place a dressing over it.
I was thankful for that experience as during the first month of my intern year on the cardiothoracic surgery service I placed 13 chest tubes. I've placed many more during the last 5 years. Now, here I was again. A body donor, a scalpel, talking one of the new interns through the steps, showing them some of the tricks I had picked up along the way. At one point I grabbed the scalpel myself and placed a chest tube in less than 30 seconds. Of course, on a real patient there would have been a lot of other things happening, prepping the patient, wearing sterile gowns, giving anesthesia, etc. But, still, there was a certain satisfaction in how far I had come, and how the thought of making that incision no longer frightened me. I miss surgery sometimes, but I know I have made the right choice for this point in my life. And I am happy to have to have spent the last two days, albeit slightly melancholy, reliving a very important time in my life. Tomorrow back to the Geriatric service. Seven more shifts, and it is over. Get me back to the E.D. Back to the trauma and the drama. Back to my new life.