June 06, 2022

Adventures in Surgery

Anthony Pappas, MD

During my first clinical rotation as a third year medical student in 1966, I was asked to acquire the history and perform a physical examination on the required five patients in general surgery (although already completed by the intern and resident). I was also responsible for scrubbing in to “assist” in my patients’ surgery.

Each student was also assigned a staff person as a mentor with whom we would meet two or three times during the rotation and discuss whatever seemed appropriate at the time. My mentor during that first rotation was a big, tall man with a fairly notable German accent. I was told that everyone was afraid of this man, although I really didn’t know why. But since everyone was afraid of him, I decided I would be too. I must say he was actually extremely friendly, and I never saw him — or personally heard of him — belittling, or in any way being nasty, to anybody. I think his reputation was unearned.

During my first week in surgery, I heard my name being paged over the speaker system to call an internal hospital phone number. It turned out to be the operating room and a very nice nurse asked me where I was and why I was not in the operating room. I told her that none of my patients were scheduled for surgery that day. She informed me that my mentor had put me on the schedule to scrub in for one of his private patients. She also told me that I should look at the surgical schedule every day, even if my patients were not having surgery, because in fact my name was on the list with my mentor’s patient.

Knowing his reputation, I got a bit panicky as I raced down to the operating room and got into some scrub clothes. Along with a nice tachycardia, my ensuing panic made me very sweaty. I scrubbed my hands and forearms — as I had seen doctors do in TV shows and movies — and proceeded into the operating room.

A nurse helped me put on the sterile gown and asked what size gloves I wore. Since I had never worn surgical gloves before, I told her I didn’t know. From my height she guessed that I probably wore a size 7 or 7-1/2 and held out the right-hand glove, just like I'd seen in the movies. Also, just like in the movies I plunged my hand into the glove. That's where it all went wrong. As mentioned, I was nervous, and even after drying my hands, they became wet again with sweat.

Another mitigating factor is that I have fairly big hands and really wear size 8 gloves. As I plunged my hand into the glove, two things happened. First, my sweaty hand got caught in the palm part of the glove and not a single finger went into the right hole. The second thing was that the glove was way too small. Meanwhile surgery had begun, and I was struggling over in the corner with my right hand trapped in a glove.

Somehow it finally all worked out, and I went over and stood by the operating table. At that point I discovered that nobody really needed a third-year medical student in surgery, and my mentor was actually being quite thoughtful asking me to come and watch. As my heart rate returned to normal, I realized how comical it had all been.

After that was over, and in the years since, I’ve had many a good laugh by reliving that story. I can still see my right hand with my fingers crumpled together trapped inside the palm of that rubber glove.