By Bill Kirk
No one told me how many volts they were going to zap me with, and I didn’t want to ask.
Finally, after six months, I decided to look it up on Wikipedia. I found an explanation about the procedure, called electro-cardioversion, but it dealt only in joules, a measurement of electricity I must have slept through in high school physics class. Now, on my back on an operating table in the cardio section of UNC Hospitals, I wasn’t thinking about volts; I was wondering, simply put, if it was going to hurt.
A nurse introduced himself as Brian, said he was usually upstairs in ER, and began bustling about the center of attention — me. Brian turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the whole show, making small talk, gently smiling and narrating everything he was doing, beginning with an EKG.
A young man in scrubs came in, was introduced and stood by the door observing. Two chairs, one occupied by my wife, in the corner of a surprisingly small room had to be pushed out of the way to make space for our new observer.
Brian shaved a bit of my chest with an electric razor as another observer, evidently an MD, squeezed into the room. Next, Brian opened my hospital gown and smeared some cold ointment on my chest, then rolled me over onto my side and applied some to my back.
I noted that the two observers offered no help to Brian as he heaved me gently to and fro. Perhaps this was strictly his show, or perhaps they wanted to show Brian that they understood his complete competence in this matter.
Returned to the supine, we were joined by a woman, also in scrubs. Although shorter, she watched from behind the assumed MD, indicating to me a viewing hierarchy here, even when the main attraction is nothing more than watching Brian heave a big walrus this way and that.
There were now three medical observers, my non-medical but never-the-less very interested wife, Brian and I. Six people in a tiny room adds up, in this case, to a crowd. But wait! There’s more!
The door swung open — no easy task when the door swings inward, banging at least one person in the butt. A young man entered and then held the door open for a woman with a push-cart. Thin and surprisingly young, she introduced herself as Dr. So-and-so. She’s the anesthesiologist, someone said; I was supposed to infer that from her cart, but I didn’t. Not enough time spent in hospitals for this young lad, I guess.
My wife was invited to leave the room and wait until summoned from a patients’ lounge down the hall. Brian held two white vinyl pads over me and worked to untangle the wires and cables that dangled from each. He worked at it long enough that I began to wonder if he were trying to show me something, to encourage me to find some everlasting truth, some finite understanding of myself, my life, my place in an uncaring universe, in the moments before the electricity was switched on.
Or perhaps he just wanted to focus my attention on the next few joule-filled minutes.
The rest of the room enjoyed a gabfest that sounded like a high school reunion. The door opened — yes, inward again — the crowd quickly quieted and parted to make a pathway from the door to the back of the tiny but crowded room. Dr. Ditmar (I’m changing names here) glided in, looking neither left nor right, smiling only slightly, silent.
I greeted him by name, we very briefly made eye contact and he was gone, out of my sight beyond the top of my head. I knew who he was; my wife and I had visited him in his office, where I had agreed to undergo electro-cardioversion, a controlled shock to my heart to restore proper function.
It was about to begin. Brian, his cables untangled, had stuck the adhesive-covered vinyl pads to me, one on my chest and the other on my back. They “faced” each other, you might say, both just left of sternum and spine, with my heart sandwiched between them. The young woman stepped from her cart, put a tube into my nostrils, said that I would smell a shower curtain, and treated me to pure, fresh, cool oxygen.
The time-out, part of the Universal Procedure: Brian stepped to the front of the crowd, which quieted in about a half-second, and he began reading from a sheet of paper. “The patient’s name is … his date of birth is … he is here for …. .”
I missed the rest of it because I was, you see, sound asleep.
I woke up two seconds later, just as my wife came in the door.
“Hey, where ya been?” I asked. This got a healthy laugh from my audience. Wait. Two seconds? Well, that’s what it seemed to me. And the voltage? Or the joules? Feel any of that? No. Sorry. I slept through it.
Bill Kirk is a resident of Chapel Hill.