Me and My Drum

Julia Weston

My hand fumbled around inside a man’s abdominal cavity until intestines swirled halfway up my forearm. I desperately tried to feel the tumor the surgeon told me to find, all while “The Little Drummer Boy” played on the speaker overhead. I asked myself: How did I get here?

Here I was, a third-year medical student getting truly “hands-on” experience in the Operating Room a week before Christmas. I stuck out easily from the crowd in the hard, gray room. Everyone meticulously swayed around the patient and I as if it were heavily rehearsed choreography. Meanwhile, my eyes delineated a clear sense of self-doubt with a furled brow, my ceil blue bouffant stuck straight up from my head, bumpy like the petals of a flower when a child holds it out of the car window, a slick of sweat permanently plastered under my hairline, my fogged safety goggles making their continued journey down the bridge of my nose. Everyone else bore holiday-themed cloth surgical caps over their slicked back hair, knew what and what not to touch, what and what not to say, their role and place in the OR as obvious to them as the sky is blue. To me, the sky might as well have been technicolor as I calculated my every move three times.

Where is this dang tumor? I asked myself, my fingers scoping around the man’s pelvic cavity while the colorectal surgeon scanned my facial expressions, seeming to correctly decipher what each crinkle in my skin meant as I obviously feigned the look of a true intellectual who knew what I was doing. The surgeon nodded at me as if to say, “you gotta go way deeper in there.” The bottom half of the patient’s abdomen had been surgically opened and explored by the meticulous fingers of the surgeon, and my one job was to find the tumor in the patient’s colon by feel, my vision obscured by intestines swallowing my arm whole. I could feel the heat of the surgeon holding back chuckles as I maneuvered my body to accomplish the task. I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum… Now I was up on my tip toes on the metal step provided for my short stature, trying to maneuver my forearm further inside this man’s abdomen. Maybe if I bend my arm a bit… no, flex the wrist, put your fingers together like a duck’s bill, put your weight into it, I pretended to coach myself. Yes, that’s the rectum that courses into the pelvic cavity. Finally, I think… I think I found it: an area at the junction of the rectum and sigmoid colon, definitely meatier and more rubbery than the surrounding smooth, slippery tubular structures. I let out a mental sigh of relief and looked up at the surgeon.

“I found it,” I told her half-confidently with a squint of the eyes in an attempt to convey a sense of calm and peace over my blood-spotted mask. I played my drum for him, pa rum pum pum pum…

“You sure?” she asked, apprehension in her eyes.

I nodded and began my hand’s upward ascent into a world that did not involve desperately grasping a stranger’s rectum. Maybe I impressed the surgeon by my eagerness to be involved in the case, I thought as I cautiously coaxed myself into a feeling of belonging in the OR. Maybe she appreciates my curiosity to learn about the human body.

My forearm and hand emerged and were met immediately with the cold of the Operating Room, trembling like a newborn who has just been ejected from a cavern of warm, embracing fluid. I stared at my appendage, glistening with peach-colored intestinal goop and streaks of blood. Not knowing what to do with this fine specimen, I held my arm out in front of me, several IQ points having suddenly been deleted from my brain with a single click. This way I definitely will not break sterile field, I thought, a visceral fear that constantly coursed through my being while in the OR. The surgeon and physician’s assistant howled in laughter, and the physician’s assistant grabbed my arm to wipe it on the blue surgical drape for me, a task my brain could not compute on its own. I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum…

“I will never forget that,” the physician’s assistant chuckled.

I laughed with her, not in an attempt to fit in in the OR for once, but a genuine guffaw at myself, the complex setting in which I was stationed, and what I had just successfully faced. The truth of the matter was that I’d had a strong fear of starting my surgery rotation since the first day of medical school. Not only had I stood for several hours, overheating in a blue gown that smelled of crayons, my stomach crying for a morsel of sustenance while my blood glucose steadily dropped, I had just weaseled the majority of my forearm into a patient’s pulsating belly. I probably didn’t find the tumor, despite my clearly high level of expertise in the matter. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t panic!

Emotion welled up at the superior aspect of my oropharynx, when suddenly the distinct clang of a surgical instrument struck the floor, a sound which reflexively brings all who roam the OR to a cold stop. The surgeon looked up sheepishly at the physician’s assistant and I across a pile of glistening intestines, her empty palm opened directly to my field of vision as if to show its shared humanity. It was then that all three of us roared in laughter. The circulating nurse playfully rolled her eyes on her way out of the OR to grab a new instrument while the dropped one lay on the floor like an overturned beetle, its metallic legs beating without rhyme or reason in the air. I was finally starting to relate less with the feeling of being an overturned beetle myself, having been reminded of the natural fallibility present in everyone in the room. I hummed along to the rhythmic buzz of the speaker overhead, joining in the sway of bodies in the room.

Me and my drum…
Rum pum pum pum…


Becoming a Doctor at the University of Minnesota Copyright © 2021 by Julia Weston. All Rights Reserved.