In between patients, each room in the hospital has a life of its own: The operating theater is prepped for another run; the delivery room is ready for another baby to come down the pike. Everything’s sterilized and rearranged. While the attendants and residents wolf down their cheeseburgers, a medical student (that’s me) retreats to the residents’ call room to make quick work of his dependable cheese sandwiches and raisins. (“Oh!” a resident says admiringly. “You’re so healthy!” “No,” I respond. “I’m kosher.”)
The call room is a place that many patients wouldn’t want to see, since its workaday normality might disappoint those who expect their doctors to be something other than run of the mill. Imagine your break room at work, but without the stern hand and refrigerator-clearing punctiliousness of an office manager. This room is furnished with chairs that also have served as footstools and as impromptu beds; a refrigerator higgledy-piggledy with old lunches, and a TV talking to itself. Off the main call room is the back room, with a bunk bed; piles of white medical jackets, coats and other clothing, and a box of shoes that hasn’t been touched since the Ford administration. Project onto this backdrop the rhythms of any workday: petty frustrations and jealousies, hot- and cold-running gossip, and unavoidable tedium, and you can understand why “ER” never could be called “Call Room.”
Last week I lost my wedding ring in the back room. It’s probably still there.
It happened like this. I had a week of observing surgical procedures. Surgery, like a symphony orchestra, is fascinating in the abstract but puts me to sleep after the first 30 minutes. I strain to keep my eyes open; I think of chapters from the textbooks I’m studying; I say Psalms under my breath; I eat a good lunch and sleep right; all to no avail. Luckily, my head jerked up with a start just as I was about to fall, face first, into the instrument tray.
Observing procedures is a lot less boring when your hands are allowed into the surgical field. “This is the aorta,” a surgeon said during one procedure, and I said to myself, “Put it away before something happens to it!” Nothing untoward happened, even though I was only 18 inches away — partially because I wasn’t allowed near any of the knives. My job was to retract, to pull apart the edges of the incision to allow the surgeons to see as much as possible.
Even for this minimal participation I had to get ready like the high priest entering the Holy of Holies. Before I donned the surgical gown and the surgical nurse held open the gloves so that I could stick my hands down into them, I scrubbed up just so. First fingernails, then sides of fingers, then fingers, palms, backs of hands and arms. I was cleaner than I’d ever been in my life. This reminds me of washing hands before breaking bread, which is similarly governed by precise detail but for a very different purpose: not cleanliness, but sanctification through the remembrance of Temple purity. In both sorts of washing, extraneous objects must be removed from the hands (although, relying on some fairly obscure leniencies, I don’t take off my ring before washing for bread). I took off my watch and stuck it in the pocket of my scrubs. The first time I ever scrubbed in to a surgery (a long three weeks ago), I forgot to take off my wedding ring. As I stuck my left hand through the sleeve of the surgery gown, ready to meet the glove midair, the nurse raised her eyebrows as she glimpsed the band on my finger. “Uh-unh,” she said. I retreated to the sink and started over.
Before long, I had come up with a place to store my wedding ring before scrubbing up — my Palm Pilot case — and had congratulated myself on my cleverness. Last week I was getting my things together after a long and frustrating day. I had gotten up at 3:15 a.m., arrived at the hospital at 4:30 a.m. to write notes on patients’ progress after their surgery, and stood at drowsy inattention during a six-hour procedure at which I did not fall over onto the patient. I was standing in the back call room — the one with the bunk bed, piles of clothing, a box of neglected shoes and a general air of summer-camp disorder — ready to restore myself to everyday life, complete with wedding band, and go home. I opened up the Palm Pilot case, and, with a happy clink, the ring sprang free to find a new home. I haven’t seen it since then.
Of course I got upset, like any normal person. But it’s hard to stay annoyed about things you’ve lost when among the patients you see the next morning is Dolores, a woman who had a hysterectomy as a treatment for uterine cancer and (as a bonus) some of her very large stomach removed to make the operation easier. At 6 in the morning, awakened by a medical student’s awkward questions, she was hardly even put out, and very happy with the belly button reconstructed for her by the surgeon. Here’s to her new navel, and here’s to whoever finds my wedding ring. May you use it on happy occasions.
Zackary Sholem Berger is a medical student, but someday (he hopes) he’ll be a doctor. This series of columns traces his metamorphosis from one into the other. Send comments, complaints and lost-and-found notices to firstname.lastname@example.org. No medical advice given.