By Jurgen Stahl
Peter Stanley, esteemed Professor of surgery, gifted with superb surgical skills and an exquisite taste in anything Mozart, was not a man of patience. He took three steps at a time to the fourth floor, no rest allowed. Unlike his contemporaries who’d given in to the pull of gravity, despair, and laziness, he had vowed to fight life’s unacceptable obstacles.
Stanley loved the revering glances of nurses and surgeons as he rushed past theaters and expectant faces of patients, some pleading, many grateful, few apprehensive.
This was his world.
His assistant leaned over the basin in the pre-op room and washed the soap from his left forearm, his elbow pointing downwards.
Stanley awarded him a shallow nod, took a nail cleaner out of the manicure set. His nails were spotless, but still he followed the procedure despite the waste of time.
“Nasty cancer on biopsy,” the assistant blabbered on, as if Stanley needed to know. So nervous, they all were when they operated under him.
“Obstructs the right side, growing into the appendix but—”
“Sorry, Professor, it’s just…” The young man, Galanos or something like that, threw the towel in the basket, waited a moment as if expecting more, then pushed backwards through the door, holding his hands up.
“I’ll get started then.”
Three minutes later, the theater nurse unfolded a sterile coat for Stanley, and he pushed through his arms. He pirouetted, and she fastened the ties at his back. Next were size nine gloves, two pairs, and he was ready to go.
Yes, he loved this routine, the invisible etiquette.
“Radiology suggested—” Galanos said, but Stanley raised his right hand. He didn’t need a lecture from that young man. The colon lay exposed, and slight fecal fragrance flowed through his mask. His fingers glided along the brown tube and found the tumor at once. Synchronized movements, infallible muscle memory imprinted over decades of practice.
A rock-hard cancer, glued to the back of the abdominal wall.
This would take longer than expected. An unwelcome nuisance in his busy schedule.
Stanley did not appreciate surprises.
Five minutes later, the intestines resisted his hands. Stanley prowled underneath the tumor, but it had grown deeper than he’d been told. His jaws tensed and he glowered at the recalcitrant organ.
They had not bothered telling him about this complication.
His fingers snaked around the contour of the red mass until they merged with something else down there, firm to the touch. A perforated cancer, growing into the bladder, another unwelcome surprise.
No one answered his unspoken question. Stanley glimpsed the nurse’s peek at the assistant, his slight shake of his head in reply. The Professor made a mental note of this.
At least the heart rate monitor and respirator did what they were told.
“Sorry, Professor. I tried to tell you but—” Stanley shut him up with a brief glance over his mask.
His hands slid back deep into the cavity, but something was not right today, not just the false imaging diagnosis. Fingers stiff, the scalpel heavier, the twitch in his left ring finger more annoying than on other days. He closed the hand to a fist three times, breathed in and out, and forced the flutter to disappear before anyone could notice. But the blade—not the seamless extensions of his fingertips, no flowing movements, tissue planes refusing to open before him.
Was the air conditioning set below his preferred setting?
The cancerous growth resisted the scalpel’s efforts. Stanley cut again, more determined. The junior doc stalked his fingers with a gauze pad and cautery. Sweat pearls tickled his eyebrows, and the theater nurse wiped them off at once.
The blade slid off the mass, missing his left hand by the width of a hair.
“We changed manufacturers?” he barked at the nurse.
“I don’t think so, Professor.”
“They feel different. Very different.”
She held his stare for a fraction, then sought refuge in the surgical instruments on her table.
His fingers rested on the defiant cancer, and he gathered his thoughts. The clock on the wall clicked. Four o’clock. He had done these operations hundreds of times. What was wrong today, with his staff, the equipment, the theater?
“New blade.” He held out his hand.
She squeezed the metal on the handle and passed it to him.
Stanley hauled up the mass and cut deeply underneath the tumor, but the instruments felt foreign today.
“God dammit.” Blood sprouted from somewhere, and the assistant stuck a gauze pack into the wound.
“Another blade. And new this time. Understood? Not used, not second-hand. New.” The nurse grabbed the scalpel off him, pulled off the bloodied steel, and replaced it with an audible click, fingers trembling. Three attempts later, she passed it to Stanley.
“Take your hands away,” Stanley hissed to Galanos.
“Sorry, Prof., only wanted to—”
Stanley cut; the mass came free.
Of course, it was the equipment.
He relaxed. The rest would be for the young doctor to do.
Professor Stanley ripped off his mask and undid the knot of this gown. His assistant stared down into the operation field, didn’t return his look, and there was that shake of his head again, slight only, but defiance, nonetheless.
He left the hospital two patients later, drove off in his Merc and listened to the Don Giovanni overture blasting through the sixteen speakers. Warm energy floated through him.
Would old age ever catch him like others? A satisfied smile played around the angles of his mouth.
At home, during the third act, the call came.
“That patient of yours, Professor?” The urologist on the other end, another name he didn’t remember. Impertinent in his tone, the caller didn’t allow him to remind him whom he was talking to.
“What have you done, Dr. Stanley? You massacred his bladder; now he’s pissing in his abdomen. You…”
The phone dropped to the floor, the twitching grew into a tremor that neither his fist nor iron will could stop.