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Supernatural or just coincidence?


Being in the right place at the right time
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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And one day, one evening, we had company at dinner. And I always make rounds in the evening before I came home, but because we had company, I'd come home directly, thinking that when the company left, I'd go back to the hospital and make my evening rounds. And I realized it was getting to be about 8:30, 9:00, they weren't leaving and I excused myself and went to the hospital. I didn't go to the Yale New Haven Hospital, where almost all my patients usually are, I went to the St Raphael's Hospital, which is a Catholic hospital in town, about 500 beds, where I didn't operate often. But I had two patients there.

And I came in through the emergency room entrance, let's say it was 9:00, because I think it was 9:00, and I hear, on the page, the public-address page system, the page operator is saying something I've never, ever heard at any time in my career. I'm in my 40s at this time, late 40s. Any general surgeon come immediately to operating room. Any general surgeon come immediately to operating room. Well, at St Raphael's, the OR was on the seventh floor, and I just scooted up the steps. What was I doing at the hospital at 9:00 at night? Why was I at St Raphael's? The whole thing made no sense. So, I scooted up there, and the chief of gynaecology was the first person I saw. One of the surgeons had been doing… what was he doing? He was doing a hysterectomy or something. Oh no. Oh no, he was doing what he thought was an ectopic pregnancy. That's why it was an emergency. That was why it was going on at 9:00. And when he opened the abdomen, the wound filled with blood and cascaded out over the sides of the wound, and he panicked and called the chief. Put a lot of pads in there, you know, to try to decrease the blood flow. The chief came in and was perplexed, couldn't figure out what it was, and they said we better get a general surgeon. And so, I come in, I'm standing at the door of the OR in my street clothes, and I see those two guys looking distraught over their masks. And the anaesthesiologist is doing this thing, pumping two units of blood, and the blood bank technician is standing there with six more. And I see blood coming out through the sheets, through the pads, falling on the floor, dripping on the floor, and I rushed into the room to change. I didn't scrub, I just put my scrub suit on and they put gloves on me, and to make a long story short, I discovered that this woman had perforated the artery to the spleen. There is a condition that occurs of weakening in that artery in women who have had one child after another. This woman had five children. She was a devout Catholic. She'd had five children. And it's not common. It causes an out-patching called an aneurysm of the splenic artery, and the splenic artery had perforated, and blood was all over the place. And as soon as I recognized it, you know, I was in this situation of sheer terror. But the minute I recognized what it was, I thought, well, this is over. I'll fix that in a second. And I did. You know, I… this is my territory. I own this left upper quadrant to the abdomen. I own it. So, I… you know, I did what needed to be done, and for years afterwards, I would get a poinsettia at Christmas time from that woman. I still see her son from time to time.

And she's still alive. She's probably in her 70s now. She was in her early 40s at the time.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Hospital of Saint Raphael

Duration: 4 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 04 November 2011