Try to imagine the smell of burnt hair combined with the distinct scent of a dental drill boring into a tooth. If you can, then you know what I smelled as a drill bit cut through the skull of patient x, lying face down on an operating table. With a dozen or so people in the room, all focused to save the man’s life. Dr. Sheehan created a small hole in the bone, facilitating the removal of a larger section of scull, to gain access to a section of the patient’s brain.
Dr. Sheehan is a neurosurgeon at Penn state Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. And patient x must remain anonymous per an agreement with the hospital to allow my self and a writer full access to Dr. Sheehan for a day.
Scrubs, check. Hair cap, check. Foot booties, check. Into the O.R. “Dr. Sheehan,” I ask, “how close can I get to you during the surgeries?” Answer: “Close enough to touch the brain…just don’t do it.” He laughs at his own humor. Which he was full of. I was surprised by his easy nature, and the overall lack of tension in the room while he worked. I’d imagined a delicate brain surgery would be quite stoic. While he was focused on the task at hand, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, there was an easy banter amongst everyone in the room.
There I was, front row seat to an amazing show for the next 8 hours. Unbelievable. Exposed brains, tumor removals, back, and spinal surgeries. What more could I ask for? What I witnessed that day I had only lived vicariously through medical dramas. And this was so much more exciting.
At one point, inches away from the doctor’s back, I looked over his shoulder and saw a great vantage point. Remembering the warning not to touch anything that came in contact with the surgical procedure, I moved in for the shot. I lowered my camera with my left hand, guessed at my framing, and hoped that aperture priority would nail the exposure. It was part luck, and part experience that allowed me to place the selected focus point on the Dr’s head.
One shot fired, two shots, three. Then it happened. My lens hood nearly touched the bag used to catch blood and bone debris. “Back away from the table. Be careful!” the circulating nurse called out. Thankfully it hadn’t actually come into contact, but it was too close. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I thought about the possibility that I may have pushed too far and would be benched for the remainder of the day. Not to mention I’d almost interfered with a sterile area.
After that surgery the nurse and I spoke. She was very nice about it. She just warned me again about the sterile areas and how it was part of her job to manage the O.R. I appreciated how she handled it, with a smile and a polite reminder of my boundaries. Even if she had given me the smack down, I would have had total respect for her, and her job. After all, I was in her “house” that day.
The writer, Luke Rettig, described Dr Sheehan as a fighter pilot, or a rock star. A persona of unshakable confidence. I would definitely concur. And as the yin to that yang, he was a down to earth guy. Modest and kind, gifted with supernatural hands.Working from one surgery to the next, stopping for the occasional drink of Mountain Dew. All day. Like a machine.
We arrived at the hospital at 6am, and left at about 7pm; at which point I was exhausted. He started his morning with a conference on “doctorly” stuff, then onto his first surgery around 7:30. Went steady ’till lunch. Which was short. And then operating on more brains and spines until about 3pm. After surgeries he made rounds to his recovering patients, filed paper work, then spoke with us for over an hour. He said he had more work to do, then home to dinner with his family. A bit more work, then bed by 1. And up at 5am to do it all over again.
The life of a neurosurgeon. Saving lives. If I could take one thing away from my time following Dr. Sheehan it would be to have his level of confidence, backed by real skill, and tempered by an equally generous nature. Mad respect.
With image integrity, and journalistic values in mind a bit of disclosure is needed: I have applied a small amount of selective blurring on two images. This is to protect the identities of those patients, per the aforementioned agreement with the hospital.