In the Aftermath
by Cami Stenquist
I can’t remember his name. I don’t recall the time of year, his age, the surgeon, specific procedure, who else was in the room, or much of anything really. But, I can hear the song “Desperado” by the Eagles playing in the background.
I can picture myself going through the motions, because not everyone makes it out of the OR into Recovery. Some take a bypass to the “D” holding room for family viewing, before heading downstairs to the morgue. I’ve cleaned up enough of those detouring bodies to know what I must have done that day. But only the song remains sure in my mind.
Desperado, oh, you ain’t gettin’ no younger
Your pain and your hunger, they’re drivin’ you home
The circulating nurse, and I, as the scrub nurse, would have washed his body. The coagulated blood, matted in the hair behind his neck, the result of inserting a pre-operative subclavian central line, would be vigorously washed away with the pink, sudsy bubbles of a Hibiclens scrub. The cloth tape securing the endotracheal tube placement would be removed, and the mucous-covered tube pulled. A thick layer of Vaseline would moisten the lips, bloody and cracked, from hours of forced oxygen. The paper tape holding his eyelids shut protecting the corneas from being accidently scratched, would be gently peeled off. The sticky EKG pads removed from his thorax and back. Instead of a fine 3-0 Vicryl subcuticular suture and steri-strips closing his wound, a heavy silk stitch closed the chest—grossly gaping in several spots because the harried assistant wanted to go home. Over a hundred staples would be necessary to close the incision on the inside of his left leg, where we harvested the saphenous vein graft necessary to replace the plaque-ridden vessels in the heart. The multiple IV sites would be capped off, tubing still taped in place, backed up with dark, clotted blood. Dressings decidedly sparse, because there’s no need to protect a wound not expected to heal. One of us would remove the Foley catheter that emptied his bladder of the thousands of milliliters of D5 ½ Normal Saline and Lactated Ringers that once carried life-saving medications and antibiotics. No one wants a family’s last image of their loved one to be a bag of urine.
We’d check and double check that we cleaned as much of the blood off the body as possible. I’d log roll him to my side while the nurse washed hers, and then she’d roll him to her side as I scrubbed mine. Fresh sheets would replace the blood and prep fluid-soaked ones covering the OR table. Betadine remained behind, staining the skin in a way that I hoped told the family “we tried.” See all the IV sites? The large incisions? Can you tell how long we fought to make his heart pump? Stupid heart. We shocked it numerous times. Hung bags of packed red blood cells and plasma. The doctor manually massaged it—begging it to respond, he even injected epinephrine into the heart muscle itself. No one took a break to pee or go to lunch the whole nine hours he was in the room. We stuck to the plan, we tried. But can you tell? Look, look at the betadine.
Moving through the motions, we’d do our best to return him to his family, although not as we had hoped. We’d dress him in a clean hospital gown, tying the back. We’d return his glasses and slip his wedding band onto its indented home. We’d comb his hair. We’d get help to transfer him to his hospital bed. We’d cover him with blue-green institutional bedding bearing the hospital logo. We’d tuck the blankets bringing them up to his chest, and cross his arms over, as though just resting. We’d raise the head of the bed eighteen degrees to make him look a little more comfortable. We’d step back to admire our efforts. The song lyrics filling the room as we worked.
Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences; open the gate
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late
Cami Stenquist recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her piece, “Dad’s List” was published by PBS through the Minnesota Remembers Vietnam Project.