It was a strange kind of birth. Up until the time I started to smell burning tissue – kind of like the smell at the dentist when they’re drilling on a tooth – it was mostly like something on the Discovery Channel. My friend, M, got to see a whole surgical team splattered by blood when the resident cut through an aorta (on purpose), but I was watching a laparoscopic hysterectomy on a video screen above the surgeon. The surgeon, himself, wasn’t even touching the patient; he was operating the controls of the Da Vinci – this multi-armed robot that was doing the actual dirty work. The patient, 46, had been unresponsive to various treatments for her fibroids and was now having her uterus removed.
For two hours, I had been watching the surgeon methodically sever the uterus from the fallopian tubes and surrounding tissues (moderately fascinating). They had also spent about two hours prepping, so I had spent at least four hours feeling very uncomfortable – not knowing where to stand, whether or not I was in the way or if it was okay for me to ask questions and if I could ask questions, then to whom. I had become so acutely aware of these feelings that it came as a bit of a surprise when the surgeon announced that he was done. All that was left was to pull the uterus and cervix through the vagina. He explained that he would do this by slicing the uterus into smaller pieces so that it would be easier to extract. As he said this, I found my attention sharpening, my uterus cramping, the way it does at a birth when the mother begins to push. After several hours of watching, waiting, holding space, it was finally time: I held my breath as the surgeon made two or three longitudinal cuts, turning the uterus into some sort of soft-bodied sea creature. Then, he instructed the resident to pull.
“Slowly,” he said, “You don’t want it to tear.”
I watched on the video as the uterus made its exit, the cut pieces folding over one another the way a baby’s skull bones fold over one another to ease its passage down the birth canal. At some point, the resident had to start over and the uterus tried to reclaim its former home, the way a baby slides back into its mother between pushes. Pull, pull. Hand over hand. Keep pulling. And then it was out.
“Did you get it?” the surgeon asked
“I did!” the resident exclaimed.
The focus then shifted to the uterus, the prize in all of this. Reflexively, I turned my attention to the patient. I never noticed that I did this in birth – there was so much going on and it was clear that the mother needed me. But, as I opened myself up to the patient, I remembered that she was asleep – bundled in pads and sterile sheets, cords hanging off and out of her. I thought about how she would feel when she woke up – tired, sore, happy to be done and glad it went well. My eyes shifted from the patient to the video, the video of the empty space that once contained her womb – the space that was once so full, now empty.