Wolfspeak: Why Write about Anesthesia

by wolf on February 17, 2013

Breathing for Two is a short book about breathing from the point of view of an anesthesiologist.

Which is my day job.

I know what you’re thinking.  Just what the world needs, another anesthesia book.

Stop right there.

There are no other anesthesia books, not ones written for ordinary folks. It’s the invisible profession.

When I was a surgical resident, I never even saw the anesthesiologist behind the ether screen. I never thought about the guy. I was concerned with the tissue I was operating on, and as long as it didn’t move, that was all I cared about.

How I became an anesthesiologist is a long story involving my jumping ship from surgery to anesthesiology. But once I got here, I began to see how taken for granted anesthesia was. Nobody noticed. I hadn’t noticed. Neither did nurses or other doctors or hospital personnel. Occasionally patients, but that was it. Nobody knew anything about it.

I liked that. It meant I was generally free to do my job without interference. And it gave me time to reflect.

As my writing career developed, I focused on plays, stories, poetry. But nothing about anesthesia. My profession was as invisible in my creative life as it was in the world.

Over time, I discovered I had things to say about it.

As a reader, I always like it when someone shares his expertise about a world he truly knows, providing an insider’s look at his work. Anesthesia is a world of hidden detail, where it matters whether you choose a Whitacre over a Tuohy needle, a Mac over a Miller blade.

Details like these are the secret levers of anesthesia. The levers are fascinating in their elegance and beauty, worthy of attention and admiration. And sometimes they’re the difference between life and death.

Most of the time, when things are happening as they are supposed to, anesthesia can get boring. But occasionally things get interesting. When that happens it’s usually bad news. When things are at their worst, anesthesia poises on the edge of a steep waterfall. Grim for patient and anesthetist.

Good for writers.

One more thing. There’s a mystery at the heart of anesthesia. Etherization is the great suspension, a moment when a patient’s transit through the world is interrupted, permitting the body to be surgically invaded in a way that couldn’t happen otherwise.

The patient emerges from the ether journey physically altered, as if—from his or her perception—by magic.

Anesthesia isn’t sleep. It isn’t death. It’s something between, a philosophical worm hole around which swirl questions about the nature of consciousness and the self.

Fertile ground for a writer, no?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara February 20, 2013 at 9:07 pm

That started to remind me of being a chemical plant technician. When things are going good, it can be boring and no one thinks about it. But one false move and BOOM! I can’t wait to have time to read the book – I know you’ll show us the poetic side of anesthesia, which I do imagine as art. I’m grateful to those of you who take it seriously!


wolf February 20, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Now I’m waiting for your book about the chemical plant.


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