Whilst my patient was being prepped on the operating table, Shaun (the Upper GI surgical registrar) and I had an honest chat. It started with a simple “Oh, why did you decide on surgery as a speciality?”, but soon developed into a complexed discussional affair that interestingly touched on topics such as kids, art history and pangs of guilt. Small, little, minutely-built Shaun, wrapped up in sterile drapes, masked, gloved, fingers on the ready, told me what I wouldn’t dream to hear anyone who has walked down that path say - “Your life, Diyana, is already consumed by Medicine and you know it.”
Even after scrubbing-in, Shaun’s mind was not cleansed of the filthy guilt that stealthily plagued him all his life. The soapy antibacterial suds that dripped from his fingers, forming a trail that marked the path from sink to prep table to operating table, carving the circumference of the little area that we both were standing in - if only it were not reality; that it was just a small, sterile corner where the truth can’t puncture into. “My wife did the right thing.” Shaun added. “She refused to embark on a career as demanding as this. I can only live life once my work has reached its end. I can only silently watch as she lives hers.”
And just. Like. That; the short digression ended, the conversation’s heels turned. We reverted to lighter topics: on Asian food, cooking equipment, the cultural mixture in Singapore, even the prerequisite filler of weather and the warm Australian sun. Within the walls of the medium-sized operating theatre, for what felt like minutes, our attentions deviated away from the medical machinery that surrounded us, the patient that lay by our side, roaming freely into the outside world where we longed to unleash our imaginations that have been locked in too tight.
Toby, the senior registrar, called on Shaun as he made a long slit on my patient’s abdomen. It was an incisional hernia; the patient insisted that it be must be acted on for cosmetic reason. As the diathermy blitzed its way through layers of skin, fat, subcutaneous tissue, vessels, peritoneum and then the inflammatory mess a previous mesh had left behind (for this was not the patient’s first attempt), I thought to myself as my guilt too prodded deeper still - what have I given up and what for?
My patient lying motionless, unaware of his surroundings; his legs and hands spread out like a sacrificial offering. He must have known that it will not be the last time that his bowels will lay splayed out in the open, gasping for breath. It will become progressively rebellious; the operations more risky. No amount of vanity can hide it all in; no synthetic covering can blind you from what you’ve already seen.
Despite standing there in my scrubs - covered mostly from head to toe - I have never felt more emotionally naked, never more vulnerable as if placed on an altar. Life is not long enough to live with complete satisfication, or perhaps no human being can settle comfortably with what they already have.
One has to sacrifice a bit of himself, unfortunately, to be who he wants to be.