…Than a nail. That’s how the song goes.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon and I was on my way to the biggest hospital in my country. I must admit, I was foolishly–naively–thinking I’d be out of there by 5:00 to carry on with the research for my upcoming book. Never celebrate early, it just won’t work, that’s what my dad says. My coworker was waiting for me in the lobby and we walked into the operating room with motivation and determination.
I’ve never been able to explain it but I’ll try: I really don’t feel I’m crossing a barrier when I enter an operating hall. I mean that’s the so-called “most sterile” part of a hospital, right? And still, I just walked in, changed my clothes and stepped into the “clean area” looking like an oversized leprechaun with a hairnet and gloves. There wasn’t any control, any restrictions and it doesn’t make me feel right. All I could feel was the air getting colder, life being drained out and all emotion being put to the side.
It’s a long hallway—white tiles on the floor so that blood stands out, glass all around giving the place no sense of security, no sense of shelter, silence all around so machines can warn of any upcoming death—and operating rooms to the left and to the right. There’s no way to avoid them.
There it was, resting against the wall like a passenger waiting for the subway, our target: the cursed operating table. For about two years now we’ve been struggling with this table and its record isn’t exactly pristine. Five patients have died (no blame on the table), it gets jammed in the mornings and won’t hold its position in the afternoons and moves with free will. Doctors hate it and it’s not my best friend either.
We just looked at it, I like to do that before actually opening it up. Sometimes, with the simplest gaze, one can find out the most complex of problems. This time though, it wasn’t the case. We had had a report of nuances including a jammed elevator, a stuck brake on the wheels and a wobbly leg supporter and we decided to attack the “easiest problem”: the stuck brake.
Thirty minutes passed. The air got colder, my head actually hurt—a piercing pain shooting from the back of my head to the front—and I cursed not having lunch.
That damned brake would release. I was pretty sure that, if I could just get one more inch, just one, of visibility I could sneak in a screwdriver and release the spring. But the brakes are covered by a stainless steel shroud and I had two choices: either rest my head on an operating room floor or lift a machine that weighed up four hundred pounds—and do that with a bad back. I resisted both. I did everything: I used my cellphone camera to get an idea of the issue but nothing; I tried feeling the problem but couldn’t get anything but gunk and dirt.
I exhaled in frustration while my partner told me he wanted to give it a go.
Forty minutes had passed. My headache was now unbearable. The research for my book (consisting of an interview to an amputee) was now becoming a farfetched reality. My body demanded fuel. And that damned brake would not move.
My partner leaned back, literally sat down on the floor and exhaled, copying my gesture.
Fifty minutes had passed. The ten minutes we had conversed about possible solutions had been useless. No solution seemed worthy of a try. There just wasn’t any area.
Sixty minutes. The patient in the operating room next door had just been sedated. In about two hours his leg will be completely sawed off. My partner came up with a solution that required great effort. We had to life the table and put a support below and that way we would have precious inches to work with. He chose to lift it. I chose not to oppose him. We both inhaled, he braced for a comfortable position and humph-ed the chair into the air—or just two inches—I quickly slid the support just when he pulled his fingers free. One more second and they would’ve been chopped off. Success, we had lifted it.
I took a look at the brake. The spring was jammed and I thought: “if I get my screwdriver there and undo the whole system, I can clean the gunk, blood and protein, then rebuild the system and test it.” But the access was small, a gap of two inches maximum. I’d had to rest my head on the floor and, though it had been cleaned, hospital clean isn’t really clean at all. And so, I leaned my head as much as I could, my neck stiffened as it struggled to keep me from the vile invisible demons that lurk in the deceiving white tiles. I would feel them crawling towards me, wanting to stick to my skin and then seep slowly through my pores: flu, leptospirosis, MRSA, you name it and it was there. Suddenly I stopped breathing as if that would help. Then I hissed. I was wearing a mask.
I fought to get that sharp edge inside, it was just microns away, I could feel the screw and I swore it had actually turned but my hand trembled, my fingers cramped, the position was just too uncomfortable. Dammit, I had to give up.
I rested on my knees and looked at my partner with surrendered eyes.
In him I saw the opposite: in a surge of determination he disappeared. Seconds later he was back: in his hands were a can of WD40 and a hammer. He gently shoved me out of the way, then emptied half of the WD40 on the brake. After inhaling the “enlightening” fumes, he aimed at the brake. It was literally make or break: if he missed, the dent on the table would be impossible to hide.
He swung the hammer and put every drop of strength into it. I could see the forearm flex, his veins pop out and his eyes shrug with effort. The bang was so loud the doctors on the other operating room actually peeked to see if something had happened. Silence followed.
Pop! The brake unjammed.
A hammer and WD40 can be the best tools in the world.
We left at 5:45 pm.