The Big Book of Surgery

The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery by Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Bulfinch Press, 1997. 9780821223772. 128pp.

Gene: This is a Wow, but it’s also potentially an Ick. What I love about sharing books with you is that I’m digging into books that I’ve kept for a long time and asking myself why I’ve kept them, and if they’re worth hanging on to. This book freaks me out.
Sarah: Ugh!
G: It’s photographs of surgery. I’ve looked at it so many times, but so quickly, that I didn’t realize before the other day that a lot of the pictures are of the same surgery. I never read the essay before (I did a little this time) because the photos take over my brain and then I have to stop looking at it.
S: You have to put it back and breathe deeply.
G: Right. There’s an intro or two by surgeons. One of the refers to “the priesthood of surgery.” He refers to it being seen as sacred. But it’s not sacred. What this book shows you — (don’t open it yet!) —
S: The cover is freaking me out.
G: — surgery is elegant, but it’s also like carpentry. If you make a mistake, you just shave the “wood” down a little more.
S: In the UK still, surgeons are called “Mr.” instead of “Dr.” dating back to the days when it was less of an honored profession because it was hands-on. The really cool people were more abstract and knew the philosophy of medicine, and could diagnose you. Surgeons got in there with knives and saws and stuff. That was journeyman handiwork.
G: I guess it was one of those things that dealt with the body, so it was low class?
S: …and having to work with your hands instead of your mind.
G: I’m going to let you flip through the book. When you hit my highlights we’ll talk. Beware.
S: (opens the book) Woooooooah! Nope nope nope I’m out! Yuck. Gross.
G: (laughs) This is probably the freakiest photo in the book.The surgeon has the patient’s eye fully removed from the head, though it’s still attached by the optic nerve. I don’t know why. (flipping pages)
S: Gllaaaaa—ewwwwww.
G: Spelling the noises you’re making is going to be a problem.
S: Just vowels. Just pound on the keyboard, vowels.
G: Here’s more eye stuff. This is a cornea surgery.
S: I’m having a hard time.
G: My wife Silver won’t look at this book. And she been present for knee surgeries and hip replacements because she’s a physical therapist.
I don’t even know what this one is.
This is a skull with the skin peeled back.
S: That’s the thing. When you think of surgery you don’t think of how sloppy…
G: Look at the hair, and how it’s tied up to keep it out of everything. Here’s the brain.
S: (deep breath)
G: Here’s the intro from the photographer. He was injured and went in for surgery. Then had an assignment to cover surgery. He’s talking about the experience of seeing spinal surgery. At one point the spinal cord is there, and the photographer says There’s this thing that is never supposed to see the light of day. “My first impulse I must confess was to spit, to defile it in some way, to bring it down to my level. I didn’t of course but I thought I was in the presence of something so precious, so amazing, so powerful, so pure, that I couldn’t bear the intensity.” He asked what it was made of and the surgeon said that it was like a sausage with toothpaste inside.
S: Uuuuuugh!
G: Creepy. I’m keeping this.
S: One of my favorite medical books says you’re never the same once the air hits your brain. Really good book. It’s the memoir of a neurosurgeon. If it had pictures I don’t think I could handle it.
G: The photos of with the skull open and the face peeled back, those are my favorites.
S: Ulp!
G: That’s something else — the body cavity being irrigated.They filled it full of water and now they’re pouring the bloody, bloody water out.
S: I just had oral surgery.
G: This is probably how they got the blood out of your mouth.

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