Merv Kaufman confronts his worst fear while lying on a gurney.
The city bus wasn’t crowded, though some people were standing in the aisle, but when the mother hefting a huge, clunky stroller pulled her daughter aboard, the child was clearly unsettled.
She screamed repeatedly, following each outpouring with a clear articulation of her feelings: “Mama, I’m scared, I’m scared!” Later, when some passengers had left the bus, I could see that the child, now seated on her mother’s lap, had a pacifier plugged into her mouth—perhaps that’s what finally calmed her.
I thought of this child, of her panicked screams and crying-out, when I lay on a gurney at Tisch Medical Center in New York recently. Nobody seemed particularly wrought up over the procedure that awaited me, but even so, once blood was taken and I was hooked to an oxygen measuring machine and the IV plug was in my arm, I felt I no longer had control. I was in the hands of fate–I could feel my heart beating vigorously–and, minute by minute, was growing more anxious.
For months, since I’d elected to have the ablation procedure—hopefully to cure a particular form of arrhythmia that has plagued me for years—I tried not to think about what I faced. It would be an intricate procedure, conducted under anesthesia.
It’s a good procedure, not a great one,” my physician admitted. “I’d like to say it’s 99 percent effective, but it isn’t; it’s only 90 percent.” Later, he’d say 80 percent, but by then the procedure was over.
My fear nerves were on high alert. By the time I stretched out on the gurney, naked under a back-opening gown, I knew what was to follow—and that it would take about five hours. First, I’d be shaved—clipped, actually, chest and groin; then I’d be subjected to two intricate procedures before leaving the O.R.
You won’t feel a thing,” my doctor explained reassuringly, identifying the particular anesthetic to be used. When I didn’t react, he said, “You know, the Michael Jackson drug!” That was supposed to make me feel better? Ye gods!
In truth, I was glad not to be aware of the breathing tube that would be pressed into my throat…or the cable pushed into my groin, threading its way up to my heart where some sort of electric charge was to cauterize tissue spots responsible for my condition.
Lying prone on the gurney, I kept telling myself that I really didn’t want to be awake through all that was to happen. I remembered when, as a teenager, I’d had wisdom teeth extracted. Novacaine was shot into my gums; I didn’t feel the pain, only the pressure, which was severe at times. And when my oral surgeon began dripping sweat on my forehead, I remember wishing I’d been knocked out.
Years later, in need of knee surgery, I was kept conscious all the way into the O.R. My leg had been wrapped in gauze. My surgeon never acknowledged me, only grumbled that he wanted to get started right away and began tearing at the gauze.
“Doctor,” the attending nurse snapped, and then I was out.
I never heard what I’m sure was a cutting retort—tension under that I really didn’t want to be aware of under the surgical lights.
I have no trouble letting myself fall asleep at night, or in daytimes whenever I nap. But I’ve always found the prospect of being sedated, well, kind of terrifying–as though, being put to sleep might mean I might never wake up. I’ve never articulated this to anyone, this mordant fear of death that I associate with medically induced sleep. I’m a man, right? Being brave, tough or, at the very least resigned, is part of my makeup.
But while awaiting my fate that recent day, as my gurney was rolling toward the O.R., I thought back on what I’d heard that child scream on the bus, “I’m scared.” Mama, I’m scared.
Me too, I thought…me too.
photo: rocketboom / flickr