I. J. Sarfeh was born in Tehran, Iran, to a Persian father and Russian mother. When he was nine years old, his parents sent him off to an English boarding school — he believes they thought the British system would correct his unruliness. After spending the formative years there, he and his family moved to America, where he studied medicine, became a board-certified surgeon, and ended up on the faculty of the University of California. In 2000, he retired as Professor Emeritus to pursue his original passion before being lured into medicine: creative writing. So far, he has written eight novels, most of which are in the medical mystery/suspense genre. He changed genre for his latest novel, Beyond the Third Garden, which draws on his experiences during the childhood and formative years, which were far from ordinary.
I was fourth-assistant at an operation to remove a patient’s cancerous stomach.
In awe, I watched the surgeons operating with grace, speed, efficiency. The music of Mantovani’s violins wafted from a portable radio, while the procedure flowed along as smoothly and effortlessly as the cascading strings. Without wasted movements, each action blended into the next like the harmony of the orchestra.
After removing the stomach, the surgeons fashioned a new one using a length of intestine cut down the middle, doubled on itself, and sewn together. The result was a pouch that could hold a modest amount of food, which they attached in continuity with the rest of the digestive tract. Then, using thick nylon sutures strong enough to hold the sinews together, they started closing the abdomen.
Halfway through the closure, I glimpsed a flash of metal.
Instrument or illusion?
Now began my struggle to inform the surgeons—during major operations, medical students were bound by the not-even-a-squeak rule.
Two more stitches, and my mouth was bursting to squeak.
I looked at the chief surgeon, a big man with an attitude. “Dr. Krabowski, m-may I s-speak?” I stammered in a near whisper.
He glared at me over his mask and half-lenses perched on the tip of his nose. “What?”
“I-I saw this shiny object.”
“Congratulations. The O.R. is full of shiny objects, so now we know you can see as well as speak.”
Struggling through the overdose of intimidation, I pressed on. “I hope the object inside the abdomen won’t harm your patient, sir.”
His eyes bulged. “Inside the abdomen? You think we left an instrument behind?”
“I don’t know what it is, sir.”
“Are you certain it’s there?”
“It’s in the right upper quadrant, sir. Hidden from view.”
“Do you realize we must reopen the whole abdomen to explore that area?”
A hesitant nod.
He cut out six stitches, groped around inside, and pulled out his hand. It brandished a shiny forceps.
“Well done!” he yelled. “You just saved the patient from serious post-op troubles, and us from a gazillion-dollar malpractice suit.”
He leaned into me. “Name?”
“What is surgery, Wheat?”
“Give me the definition of surgery, man!”
I cleared my throat. “It is the art and science of—”
“Bullshit! Surgery is courage. In your case, the courage of persisting despite fear.”
At last, my courage was out of hiding.
Sarah says: Thank you, so much, Iraj, for visiting my blog as a guest storyteller. Your short medical tale is certainly an example of writing about what you know. I won’t ask if this incident is based on a true life experience!
To read January’s guest storyteller post by Naomi Baltuck click here