CHAPTER ONE- DEATH HAS A VOICE
“You aren’t going to kill me, are you?”
Behind his mask the surgeon set his teeth.
The patient was middle-aged, gowned and wrapped on the gurney, with a doughy face that kneaded when she spoke, hair of a pale colour without a name,black eyes that made him wonder if she had a secret psychiatric history as well. Her stare was unnatural, always focused steadily on him. He couldn’t remember her name.
“Say you aren’t going to kill me.”
Her problem was a simple one: a lump in her right thyroid gland that a biopsy had shown had a one-in-four chance of being malignant and therefore needed removing. A right subtotal thyroidectomy, a routine operation, called major surgery only because of the thyroid’s proximity to some of the body’s lifelines: the trachea, the carotid arteries, the spinal cord. In his career he’d done over a hundred of them. But some people were terrified of surgery instead of just nervous, same as flying in airplanes. This, it seemed, was an extreme case. He wished he had passed her on to another doctor.
Both appointments he’d had with her had been peppered with the same words. Her voice didn’t even express fear; it was unnatural and flat, a voice made of porcelain tile. It just kept repeating the same thing. Endlessly.
“Did you hear me, Doctor? You aren’t going to kill me, are you?”
The surgical nurse was leaning over her gurney, saying what was always said to pre-op patients, whatever the degree of their nervousness, in a voice that brimmed with human kindness. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine, everything’ll be fine.” Even through the sterilizing agents in the air, the patient smelled the way the surgeon remembered from in his office: like an old damp cloth. Mouldy cloth. They’d put the warmed blanket over her as she was wheeled in through the white-tiled halls; a good policy Badagry General Hospital has implemented, it made patients feel comfortable and secure, and made them feel relaxed. She’d been given a sedative, too. Neither seemed to be having any effect.
“You don’t want to kill me.”
They pushed her into the operating room, lifted her from the gurney to the table. The anaesthetist injected a partial dose of general into her intravenous drip.
“Already given you some medication,” the milk-of-human-kindness voice was saying. Yes, that’s correct, he thought, I don’t want to kill you. Most doctors are more interested in healing. Really. He wrigggled his fingers in the skin-tight rubber gloves. His mask itched, and he couldn’t scratch.
“Really, you don’t want to kill me, Doctor.”
Her oil-spot-in pastry eyes drilled him. The flat voice was oily, too. Threatening. What does she have, he thought, a rich family who’ll sue me for malpractice? They can be the Dangotes, fine, I’m not worried. I’m not planning to kill her.
“I swear if you kill me, you’ll be sorry.” The anaesthetist had pressed in the full dose. The nurses poised with the mask, hesitating. She’s weird, creepy even, he thought. We get them, we have to fix them. Yes, I would be sorry, he thought. You don’t know how much. A memory touched him; he turned it away, as always.
He really wished she’d been referred to some other surgeon. “Tell me you won’t kill me.”
The nurse lowered the mask. “Just clean air, to clean out your lungs…” The two black eye-coals stayed on him, over its edge.
He had to warn all patients of the risks. “Putting aside the universal ones-haemorrhage, and infection,” he’d told her in his office, “there’s a chance the vocal nerve might get stretched, or the calcium glands damaged….” One never mentioned death except by an implication as slight as the risk; it just scared them, and didn’t help anyone. She hadn’t asked what the odds were, or even where in the above categories the risk of death lay. Just: “You aren’t going to kill me, are you, Doctor?”
Chance might kill you, he wanted to say. Your condition might kill you. God or fate or whatever you want to call it might kill you. But damnit woman, I’m not going to kill you.
It went against his grain, scraped like a scalpel up along his spine, because of that one-in-ten-thousand silver of a chance. But he said it. “I’m not going to kill you.”
The black eyes relaxed, and closed.
There was a mole on the crease of her neck where he’d planned to make the incision. He cut around it carefully. Aside from that it all went routinely, until he was stapling the incision closed. Then, without warning, for no reason, her heart stopped. It seemed as if the electrocardiogram machine had malfunctioned, which was what he thought until he felt her chest.
They did all they could, adrenaline into the heart, electroshock, cursing aloud, praying silently. Nothing remained, in the end, but to pronounce her dead.
TO BE CONTINUED…