Dots of sweat gather above my industrial safety glasses. Overhead lights glimmer, reflecting on the stainless steel of the table. The air is humid despite the air-conditioning, and heat emanates in waves. A butcher’s apron over my surgical scrubs lays heavily at my neck, the waistband tied too tightly. Privacy-glass windows, along one wall, above my head, reveal the dark of night outside.
I adjust the surgical lamp to focus on my dead patient’s chest. My assistant turns on the Stryker saw. The buzzing sound it makes, takes some getting used to. It is louder and more piercing than a dentist’s drill. When more than one of these tools is operating at a time, a symphony of colossal bees is heard. The Stryker is efficient in its purpose. An oscillating head cuts through hardened material without harming underlying soft tissue. Developed by an orthopedic surgeon in the 1940s, it is still used for removing casts after broken bones have healed. It has unique application in the field of forensic pathology for the autopsy examination.
Right now, we are using the saw to open the thorax. Once the skin, fat, and muscles are dissected away, the chest plate is revealed. The whirling blade slices easily through the connections between ribs and sternum, at the cartilage, much softer than bone. This is a safer approach than the old-fashioned method of using mammoth pruning shears. Those handles are a yard-long and unwieldy, making it hard to get a grip to pull them together. The ancient scissors transect the ribs themselves. The crunch they make, over and over, as each individual bone fractures, is the stuff of horror shows. They do create a wide field for dissection, but produce sharp spicules that can puncture the doctor’s skin. Going through the cartilage with the Stryker, closer to the center of the chest, gives a smaller area through which to enter, but the remaining nubs don’t hurt you. It’s faster, too.
My assistant is doing the preparation for toxicology testing; the blood will be analyzed for drugs and poisons. He uses a 50-ml syringe with a 3-inch long needle. The apparatus looks like a prop from Frankenstein. When he’s done, I grip the slippery heart, the size of a grapefruit, in my left hand, while with a scalpel in my right, I cut all of its attachments to the body. Blood spills out, two pints, leaking from all the major vessels.
That’s when he speaks to me.
“What are you doing?” he says, wide-eyed and frightened. “I need that.”
“Oh,” I say, not as surprised as I should be. “Pat,” I call to my assistant, “can we put this back?” This feels completely logical.
The strident ringing from the Stryker begins anew. Pat walks toward me in slow motion with a questioning look. I am not using the saw, and apparently he isn’t either. Looking around the room, there is no one else there. Still, the saw spins its blades insistently, louder. The resonance intensifies.
A film slides away as the surroundings come into focus. Opening my eyes further, I see the bedroom window with pale dawn leaking around the lace curtains. The alarm clock reads 20 minutes past six. The reverberations of its bells clamor for my attention. Hitting the off button, for the final time, after two snoozes, I swing my legs to the side of the bed and sit up.
Looking down at my hands, there is no blood, no heart. Yet my skin is drenched with adrenalin-fueled sweat. My pulse swooshes in my ears with each beat. I shake my head to clear the dream. The aroma of brewed coffee, on an automatic timer, beckons me to the morning.
The nightmare isn’t the same every time. Sometimes I’m holding the brain, with the patient’s skull opened a-La Hannibal Lecter, while we converse. In the worst of them, my dead/living body is on the autopsy table.
It took me years to pluck up the courage to ask a co-worker if he ever had these kinds of dreams; the answer made me feel less lonely in these strange perambulations. The fear of removing a vital organ, of slicing into a living person, haunts me. The flesh of a dead human is as palpable to me as my own corporeal awareness. We all tightrope that thin line of mortality daily; some aware of its existence and the fragility of life, and some, not. Yet, in the depths of peaceful slumber, the boundary shifts as I try to straddle the high wire without a net.