I recently had outpatient surgery – a hernia repair – robot-assisted. It had to be done. So, I scheduled it and showed up at the hospital at the appointed time two hours before the actual surgery.
I signed in and was greeted by a very friendly stranger. “Let’s get you back there,” she said.
“Already?” I asked, thinking I’d have a wait. But no, she took me straight to a little prep room.
“The pre-op nurse will be here momentarily,” she said. Then she handed me three plastic bags. “This one is for your shoes, this one is for personal belongings, and this one,” she said very professionally, “is for your clothes.” Then she added, “All your clothes.”
“Yes,” I smiled, “of course.” She left the room, then I frowned. The first thing they do is take you pants? I thought. She’d left a thin hospital gown laid out on the bed. It looked like a large dinner napkin with a tie to hang around your neck. I felt alone and cold.
Still frowning, I changed as quickly as I could. I wanted everything squared away before the next professional came in. Soon, I was lying on the gurney in my gown (did I mention that it was thin?) and had covered up with the (also very thin) space blanket they provided. I kept glancing over at the bag containing my pants.
Then a series of professionals came in to talk to me. They were all very nice and seemed to know what they were doing. They all seemed very comfortable in this pre-op world. But then—I couldn’t help but notice—they had their pants. But I didn’t say anything.
This pre-op phase lasted about two hours, giving me lots of time to think. I reminded myself why I was doing this, about the professionalism and trust that these people deserved. This was a common surgery… the risks are low, I thought. But I still felt naked, and I knew I’d was going to get a lot more naked over the next couple of hours. First, I’d lose my pants, then my cell phone, and then my consciousness.
In fact, the anesthesiologist (very nice guy) reassured me that I wouldn’t remember anything. But that didn’t help. I didn’t really want to lose my awareness for two hours surrounded by people with knives and a quite possibly evil robot. (I’ve seen the movies, you know)
Still, I tried to talk myself through it: Don’t be silly, anesthesia makes this possible. Just relax.
But despite my fully-informed brain’s self-talk, my partially-dressed body didn’t listen. The whole thing reactivated an ancient fear, a buried part of my psyche. I channeled Adam, “I am afraid, because I am naked. I want to hide.” Clutching my space blanket, they rolled me into the operating room and I slipped into unconsciousness.
Two hours later in the recovery room, still in a fog of anesthesia, a nurse attempted to tell me how I’d come through the surgery. But I interrupted, “Yes, fine,” I mumbled, “but WHERE are my pants?” It wasn’t really a question.
The nakedness I felt went further than just not having my pants on. It was more than just the vulnerability innate in a surgery. Something deeper, something older was being accessed. I was reconnected to my total situation, to the human situation, “Naked I came into this world and naked I shall return.” A very old, very true sense of insecurity was reawakened. My eyes were opened and I realized, I am always vulnerable, I am always dependent.
Yes, I feel better with my pants on, but they are pretty thin, too. So is the security offered by a cell phone. My ever-vigilant consciousness has lapses. Even the competence of the doctors and nurses only goes so far. Nothing can cover my total situation. I can’t atone for my guilt. I can’t accumulate enough meaning to offset my smallness. I can’t outrun my mortality. The kind of covering I need, I can’t provide for myself.
Sooner or later, life (a diagnosis, a failure, or unfulfilled longing) exposes my inability to solve the human situation. The question must be faced; what do I do with my dependency?
Do I shop for more substantial pants (fig leaves)? Do I trust in medicine or technology to solve my meaning, guilt, and mortality problem? Or do I just numb out and pretend about the whole dilemma?
That afternoon, I left the hospital—in my pants—to begin recovery. Within a day, I had started thinking about getting “back to normal.” The panicky naked feeling subsided. But I know it isn’t gone. My naked (dependent) surgery event was temporary, but my naked condition is perpetual. I am naked. I am afraid. I am looking for places to hide. The situation persists, the question remains:
Who can rescue me from this condition of death?
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