Once a year I go to Guatemala with a bunch of physicians, nurses, therapists, and technicians who use a week of their precious vacation time to provide free surgical care to people who are so poor that even the almost-free national health system is too expensive. One year I woke up on my first morning in-country, having let my roommate have first dibs at the shower–he was an anesthesiologist, and among their other duties, the anesthesiologists show up in the operating suite half an hour before everyone else to check their equipment. He left, I headed into the bathroom, and stopped at the door, shocked beyond words. Minus shit thrown on the walls, the bathroom looked like a troop of foul-tempered chimpanzees had been in there–I knew 5 minutes after meeting the guy that he was somewhere on the uncomfortable-to-be-around end of the Asperger’s spectrum, but didn’t realize until I let him shower first that apparently he’d also spent his entire life thus far with his mother walking behind him, picking up every blessed thing that he dropped on the floor. Towels, a small pond where he’d apparently gotten out of the shower before towelling off, and–horror of horrors–his dirty underwear.
I spent about 30 seconds deciding whether I should spend the rest of the week getting in the shower before this pig or spend the rest of the week cleaning up the bathroom before the maid showed up–it’s a shame to leave a nasty room for a maid. The decision was easy to reach–get in the shower before him, and leave an extra-good tip for the maid. Making it through the week without ripping the guy’s head off was easy, as I was positive about one thing: I would never see this spoiled man-baby again.
The reason that I knew that I would never see him again: he was a resident. In the context of health care, a resident is a physician who has finished medical school and is getting additional training in a specialty. Every year, our group’s chief anesthesiologist, Dr. David Metro, brings two anesthesiology residents to Guatemala with him. He typically brings one male and one female, and the male anesthesia resident is usually my roommate. They’re usually lovely people, happy to spend evenings explaining malignant hyperthermia to me or trying to describe how to intubate a kid for a cleft palate repair. (I am incapable of thinking in three dimensions, and after 5 years in Guatemala, I still can’t quite wrap my head around how you ventilate a kid who’s having a cleft repair done. To wrap one’s head around something explained in the English notes below.)
I’ve written elsewhere about what anesthesiologists contribute to a surgical procedure. (Click here for details, but be forewarned that it’s gory.) Briefly, before the invention of anesthesia, operations could only be done very quickly, which meant that anything much more involved than an amputation wasn’t very practical. The fact that today anesthesiologists can let someone be painless for hours–and then wake them up afterwards–means that we can now do long, complicated surgeries. That means that you can reconstruct a kid’s hand, or repair a baby’s cleft lip, or fix a woman’s disabling uterine prolapse—all of which our group does routinely in Guatemala, and none of which is possible without anesthesia.
On any given day, about half of our operating rooms are staffed by the anesthesiology residents that Dr. Metro brings from the United States. It is both an important educational experience for the residents, and a crucial contribution to the care that we give in Guatemala. As Dr. Metro put it, “The residents maintain the same standards of patient safety that they provide in the United States; here they learn to do it with far fewer technological resources, and they bring those skills back to Pittsburgh with them.”
The man-baby anesthesia resident never came back to Guatemala, of course. My roommates in subsequent years have included a delightfully Christian guy who had been on other missions elsewhere–and who spoke quite competent Spanish, which he learnt while working his way through college as a bartender; a very bald, very muscled young man who convinced me that I, too, could go full Yul Brynner with just a hand-held razor and a careful hand; the guy who enthusiastically followed me on my peripatetics to pick up my laundry on the crappy side of town, and then surprised me by ordering the very expensive room service every night, which admittedly did make more sense when I overheard his long phone calls about his investments. Currently the only man-baby in my life is the President of the United States of America, but I don’t have to use Trump’s bathroom, so as long as he doesn’t get us into a nuclear war because someone hurt his feelings (remember how he always said that Hillary wasn’t “tough enough”?), take away 20 million poor people’s health insurance to give yet another tax break to the wealthy, or sell us off to Russia because He Just Wants To Be Loved, it’s all good. (See here for a military person’s perspective on the Draft-Dodger In Chief…)
…and you know what else? That man-baby anesthesiology resident might have been a messy, entitled, arrogant slob, but he was a messy, entitled, arrogant slob who spent a week of his life making it possible for kids to get their hands reconstructed, and for babies to get their clefts repaired, and for women to get their disabling uterine prolapse fixed. That’s more than man-baby Donald Trump ever did–with all of his billions…
Enjoying these posts from Guatemala? Why not make a small donation to Surgicorps International, the group with which I come here? You wouldn’t believe how much aspirin we can hand out for the cost of a large meal at McDonald‘s–click here to donate. Us volunteers pay our own way–all of your donations go to covering the cost of surgical supplies, housing for patients’ families while their loved one is in the hospital, medications, and the like.
to wrap one’s head around something: to understand something; to absorb an idea or a concept. It’s usually used in a situation in which understanding something was or is difficult for you. Some examples:
- The wife of the CBS News) says she’s shocked about the attack and had no idea what her husband was planning. “I just don’t know what to tell you people. I had no idea this was going to happen and I don’t know what to say about it. I can’t wrap my head around it, OK?” Sue Hodgkinson said. (
- I can’t wrap my head around my mother’s concept of a ‘Good Girl.’ Can you? (Avantika Says)
- My five-year-old (once she wrapped her head around the fact that this particular gummy bear isn’t candy) begged to go to bed at four in the afternoon because she was so eager to use the Gummylamp as a nightlight. (Wired.com)