Under the Knife

December 5, 2014

“Oh my goodness, this one’s pregnant!”

Ms. Swisher was leaning over my shoulder looking at the starfish I’d carefully dissected. In hindsight she was one of the better science teachers I had, although I didn’t appreciate her at the time. She was a passionate teacher and enthusiastic about science, and biology in particular, which was remarkable for someone who’d been facing rooms full of surly teenagers for decades. We were given a choice of animals to dissect in ninth grade biology, and I’d chosen the starfish because starfish are cool. Also in my career as an amateur scientist I’d dissected frogs, crickets, crawfish, clams. One thing remained consistent across the phyla: their insides didn’t look anything like the textbook illustrations. Even the ones that hadn’t been embalmed had wads of gray or yellow indistinguishable stuff where certain organ systems should be. It’s why I never became a doctor. Well, it’s one of the reasons. Another reason is that I never wanted to be a doctor, and that’s one of those professions that you should only go into if you’re really passionate about it. I’d hate to be in the middle of an operation thinking, “Man, I’d rather be selling urinal cakes to coffee shops right now,” and oblivious to my patient flatlining, but that’s another story. So it didn’t surprise me that while the textbook illustration of the starfish had everything clearly marked and different organs in different shades of blue, red, and green its real insides looked like three different brands of Dijon mustard. The distinctions were clear enough that I could at least make a good guess at what was what, but it was Ms. Swisher’s years of experience that allowed her to know at a glance that the starfish’s gonads, which, like its digestive, nervous, and other systems, were spread throughout its entire body, were swollen.

There was a model of the human body at the front of her classroom, one of those with lopped off arms and legs, as though someone had tried to turn a corpse into a broken Greek statue, and the skin of the trunk cut away to reveal everything from the lungs to the liver. All my years of experience with dissection had taught me was that if I were cut open my viscera wouldn’t be that neatly color-coded, separable, easily removable, and made of plastic. We couldn’t have played football with a real liver. Well, now that I think about it, I guess we could, but there’d be a lot more fumbling.

When I started my journey with cancer I was told there was a fifty-fifty chance the chemotherapy would take care of everything, that there would be no need for further treatment. The coin was tossed and came up tails. Now there’s one more bridge to cross. I hope it’s the last one. The surgery is called a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection. In layman’s terms the surgeon’s going to cut me open right down the middle, shove most of my organs out of the way, and yank out my lymph nodes from my nut to my navel. When I was young I had nightmares about the thing that lived in the attic threatening to stab me in the stomach. Now it feels like that nightmare is coming true, although I’ll be asleep for the three to five hours the surgery takes. And I’ve met my surgeon, and I’m about as reassured as I can be. He’s a good guy, very smart, and passionate about what he does. He’s also done this operation several times, so he’s got plenty of experience. It’s good to know I’ll be in the hands of someone who knows that when he opens me up it won’t look anything like the textbook illustration.

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