A Date with Da Vinci
May 12, 2022, UVM Medical Center, Third Floor
The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. We dress, eat breakfast, and leave the house at 5:30. Around 7:00, we check into the Surgical Waiting Room where Robert is taken away and I’m given a pager, instructions, and a square of paper with his tracking ID. His sister, Nancy, and I settle into a couple of comfortable chairs flanked by our purses and a canvas bag containing our bagged lunch and the pager.
Soon I’m called into the curtained alcove where Nurse #1, a blond woman with a slight accent and a welcome sense of humor, asks the three questions Robert will answer innumerable times in the next 24 hours: name, date of birth, reason for surgery. After instructing him to undress and get into bed, she withdraws briefly. I pack his sweatpants and t-shirt into one of the handled-plastic bags provided and place his shoes in the other. He slips on the gown and I tie the back and sides together. He dons the treaded socks and gets into what I’ve learned is a medical-surgical bed which he will inhabit for the next 26 hours.
During the next half hour, the nurse takes Robert’s vitals, inputs data into her computer, asks my name and relation to the patient. There’s talk about his glasses: does he always need them? Does he want them in the OR? Has he his own case or does he need one? Oh, and that wedding ring has to go.
This turns out to be an operation in its own right. When first that ring found its home, it slid on easily, but forty years later the hand is a different hand — just as the man is a different man. Now the knuckle is swollen, the joints are knobby, but the nurse is undaunted. Pushing the curtain aside she pops out of the room appearing a minute later with a washcloth and a bottle of Windex. She squirts the liquid on Robert’s finger, twists, pulls, and sprays some more. Twist, pull, spray. Twist, pull, spray, until finally the ring makes it over the knuckle and slides off. She pronounces him single again and I stand and say, “Well, I’m outta here then,” and sit back down.
Enter the second nurse — shoulder-length dark hair, slim, and on closer inspection, older than she appears at first glance. She prepares his arm for an intravenous cocktail of electrolytes and what are loosely defined as liquids. The needle goes in and there is blood. Quite a lot of blood. A lot of tape, too, to keep the apparatus in place.
Here comes the PA. Long, lovely grey hair, blue scrubs, same three questions. Name, date of birth, reason for surgery.
Next up, the anesthesiologist. Blond, slim, thirties. Fit as the proverbial fiddle, a runner perhaps. Same three questions. Asks about his overall fitness, which Robert is only too eager to tell her includes, most recently, a dozen years of Crosssfit. She outlines the possible effects of the anesthesia: grogginess, nausea, dehydration, confusion. There follows a brief visit from the anesthesiologist’s assistant who smiles shyly and quickly withdraws.
At this point the curtain is whisked aside to reveal the star of this production: Dr. Benjamin King. Professionally attired in blue scrubs and black Crocs, his brown hair closely cropped, his dark eyes expressive over his surgical mask. The doctor exudes confidence on this Thursday morning; a man who knows his business and is prepared to do it. He repeats the three questions which I have come to think of as the Litany of the Immaculate Procedure, name, date of birth, reason for surgery. Robert queries the doctor about post-op activities and is told: Just Walking! No driving. No lifting. No lawn mowing. Just walking.
By now, the overall activity level on the pre-op floor has risen to a kind of controlled frenzy. Like the staging area of a parade where the floats and marching bands assemble, the medical-surgical beds form a line in the corridor between the pre-op rooms. Visible under the curtain, there are feet, many pairs of feet — sneakered, clogged, Crocked — some leading the beds, some at the side, some at the back.
At this juncture, the OR nurse arrives. She’s young, full-figured, and heavily tatted. On her right arm the face of a beautiful woman peaks out from dense foliage. I’m unable to make out what’s on the left arm — a unicorn perhaps, lying in wait for the virginal beauty just out of reach? The Litany of the Immaculate Procedure is repeated and she and Nurse # 1 prepare Robert’s float to join the parade. It is 8:35 am.
I return to the Surgical Waiting Room where I find Nancy texting family members to keep them abreast of developments. I settle into the chair opposite and she offers to go find coffee. It’s three hours since we left home and the coffee, surprisingly fresh and hot, goes down like a benediction, lifting the spirits and boosting our flagging energy. In the hours that follow, we read, chat, text. I write what I can member of the past two hours. We take turns visiting the nearby restroom and taking brisk walks down the length of the corridor. I check the computer monitor for Tracking ID: 240994. For the rest of the morning it reads, “Surgery in Progress.”
I don’t know what, exactly, is taking place in the OR, but it involves a sophisticated machine called Da Vinci. Dr. King sits at a 3-D console and manipulates the Da Vinci’s robotic hands through a series of five small incisions around Robert’s navel to locate and remove the prostate. As he does so, the medical-surgical bed to which Robert is strapped, stands upright and rotates to allow the doctor to make and stitch up the necessary incisions. We’ve been told that Dr. King owes his quick reflexes and manual dexterity to the many hours he devoted to video games in his youth. There’s a lesson here, but I’m not sure what it is.
At noon, we take our bagged lunches to an attractive cafe the kitchen of which is closed. There, a scattering of hospital workers is eating from takeout containers or drinking coffee and staring at their phones. A faux fire burns in the hearth and the room is eerily quiet. Outside, the flowering trees around the patio surrender their pink and white blossoms to the ever-present wind.
Returning to the Surgical Waiting Room, the monitor reads “Surgery Closing” and later, “Recovery.” Soon after, without waiting for the pager to buzz, the receptionist calls my name. She escorts us to one of the small private rooms along one side of the waiting area saying the doctor will be with us shortly. Shortly turns into an hour and the receptionist gives up on the doctor and takes us to recovery where Robert is being cared for by Nurse Dorothea. The nurse reminds me that I was her son’s third grade teacher and gives me a rundown of his life thus far — McGill University, worldwide postings with the Coast Guard, presently residing in Southern California — before Dr. King steps in and takes the floor.
He’s very pleased with his morning’s work. Robert has the perfect anatomy for the surgery and can look forward to a quick and complete recovery. He reiterates his Just Walking warning before heading back to the OR and another date with Da Vinci.
Robert looks pretty worked over, but he loves the part about the perfect anatomy. Thanking the doctor, his voice is raspy from the tube they’d inserted earlier and he’s wearing a goofy, closed-lip smile like a frog in a children’s picture book. Nancy and I tear up. I touch my husband’s bare shoulder and adjust his surgical gown.
He’s not the only one wearing a goofy smile.