Sometimes sheer panic is the impetus for ingenuity.
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We prefer to do surgery in the morning—my favorite time of day—before the telephone starts ringing and emergencies begin showing up. It’s peaceful, and surgeries usually can be done without hurry or distraction.
Our clinic is in an area where townsfolk like to hang out, perhaps while a flat tire is getting fixed or rain has stopped their work for a while. One older gentleman, Mr. Ford, would stop by regularly to watch us perform surgery, even though we often start as early as 6 am.
This particular morning was chilly, so my surgery technician, Manda, stoked up our little gas heater to add some warmth to the surgery room. The thing fits on top of a propane bottle and gets red hot.
Mr. Ford was there as usual, and he was a talker. He loved to tell stories, some from his World War II days. We’d heard most of them many times. If someone came in with a horse, he might talk about the prize racehorse he ran in 1955; I’d heard that story a thousand times. Some people would walk away, but others would listen for perhaps 30 minutes or more. He loved it. It was what he lived for. I never complained. It gave clients something to do while they waited, and it made him happy.
That morning, he was standing in front of the red-hot heater, talking about how smart his dog was. Being familiar with that story, too, most of us had tuned him out for the moment as we fished around in a horse’s knee for a bone chip.
I’m not sure who smelled it first, but we all looked up at the same time. Something was burning. About that time, Mr. Ford, in a calm and casual voice, said, “I’m on fire.”
He had backed into the heater until his britches touched the hot grill and began to burn. Smoke was coming from just above the bend of his knee. He was patting himself on the back pockets, trying to put it out. At 84 years of age, bending down that low is possibly more painful than being on fire.
Everyone in the room went into fire mode. Manda started beating the burning pants with a towel, but that just seemed to stoke the heat and create more smoke. The fire grew worse as others in the room looked around for something with which to put it out. I was thinking of throwing Mr Ford on the ground and rolling him around, but decided that might hurt him. Besides, I was sterile for the surgery. We needed water, but there was none to be found—unless we picked him up and put him in the sink.
Then it hit me.
I pulled the arthroscope out of the cannula and aimed it at Mr. Ford’s leg. Manda saw what was happening and turned the pressure on the pump to high. The lavage fluid hit the burning pants, and in seconds the fire was out. I realized that I never broke sterility.
It was all just a comma to Mr. Ford, who, cool as a cucumber, resumed the story about his dog exactly where he had left off while the rest of us were coming down from our adrenaline rush.
Mr. Ford passed away a few months back. We all miss him and his many interesting tales. But what we’ll remember most is that chilly morning when his trousers caught fire.
I can’t help but wonder how many surgeons can say they’ve extinguished a burning pair of pants with an arthroscope and never broken sterility?
Bo Brock, DVM, owns Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas. His latest book is Crowded in the Middle of Nowhere: Tales of Humor and Healing From Rural America.