For the following installment in our series, the author gained extraordinary access to the inner circles of neurosurgery for an intimate and riveting portrait of a little-known profession. Making the story that much more unusual is the fact that the subject is one of an elite handful of female brain surgeons in this male-dominated field.
Dangerous Professions: Part Two
We can’t always trust our perception of danger to keep us safe. And professions that seem safe to some may be perilous to others in ways that we can’t even imagine. For example, Neurosurgery. The surgeon featured in the following story does not seem to be exposing herself to any immediate occupational hazard. She works indoors. She is in charge while working. Her patient is anesthetized. Everyone else in the room is on her team. So how could she be hurt?
And yet jeopardy comes from within.
The very nature of her work — the extraordinary psychic and emotional stress of living in the midst of chaos, emergency, and death every day, sometimes for 20 hours at a stretch, the lack of sleep, the destructively unpredictable schedule — all of these factors make her job in neurosurgery every bit as dangerous as the other occupations that will be featured in this series.
Because of this stress, as well as her desire to surround herself with less excitement, not more, we have changed the doctor’s name at her request — as well as the name of her patient and the location of the hospital. Everything else in the report is exactly as it happened while correspondent Laurence Gonzales was attending neurosurgery.
The first time I saw Helen, she was sitting up in bed, her almond eyes looking at me inquisitively. A girlish pout informed the expression of her full red lips, and her extravagant black eyebrows gave an intelligent cast to her broad forehead. Her Greek nose was fine and straight; her olive skin was clear and veiled in a soft light that cast reflections on tiny hairs, which glittered on her outstretched arm. I kept expecting her to yawn and smile and greet the morning sun out there beyond the ice crystals on the windows. It was a gorgeous day. But all she did was breathe in and out and stare at me. Her lips moved slightly as she breathed, and Dr. Anita Braun, the neurosurgeon, said, over and over, “Helen? Hello, Helen? Can you squeeze my fingers? Helen? Hello, Helen? Squeeze my fingers, Helen. Squeeze my fingers.”
Dr. Braun turned to me. “She may hear us, but she can’t respond.” It was only then that I saw the curving, horseshoe-shaped scar that circumscribed half her skull-bone removed for surgery. In the middle of the scar was a dark and ragged hole, no bigger than a nickel, where the bullet had gone in.
Helen’s hair was beginning to grow back — it was about marine-recruit length now — and I could see that she had been well cared for, clean and groomed and fed, well cared for by her boyfriend, until he hired someone to shoot her in the head. He was a drug dealer, and Helen had been planning to inform on him, because she was pregnant and needed to change her life. Now she was going to have her baby in peace — the doctors were going to keep her alive that long at least. There was no name on Helen’s chart and her whereabouts were a closely guarded secret, because the boyfriend was still after her.
As we continued rounds in the early morning hours — Dr. Braun with her entourage of surgical residents, medical students, and nurses — we passed others like Helen. “We’re going to see the train wrecks of the night,” Dr. Braun had told me on the way to the hospital. She had also told me, “Our motto is, See no evil; hear no evil; smell no evil.” At first I mistook her flip remarks for cynicism, but I didn’t understand. The truth was that Anita Braun worked at the edge of the universe. As a top neurosurgeon, she could have been making $500,000 a year fixing slipped disks. Instead, she chose to work at a county hospital in Detroit’s inner city. A neurosurgeon in private practice might actually open someone’s skull ten times in a year. Dr. Braun, getting paid a pittance by comparison, performed the same operation a dozen times in the single month I spent with her.
At first I wanted to know every story. But after a few weeks of going on rounds, I learned that there was always something more tragic than the last story I’d heard. In the pediatric ward, we visited an eight-year-old boy whose spine had been severed by a gang bullet. He was paralyzed from the neck down. “You should have seen me when I had to tell his mother that he would never walk again,” Dr. Braun said. “It was so sad. So sad.” And then she moved quickly on to the next subject. She never spent too much time in one place in quiet contemplation — it was too risky. If she was going to be able to do these people any good, she couldn’t become emotionally crippled by the horror. But my curiosity still had the best of me then, and I hung back to watch the eight-year-old boy.
I stood by his bed as the nurse suctioned out the breathing tube that had been surgically implanted in his neck. He had dark Latin eyes and soft, shining black hair, and he wore Nike athletic socks that would never run a step. Each time the nurse detached him from the respirator, he started to suffocate, and a look of panic came over his gentle, handsome face; his mouth worked to gulp air as the nurse spoke soft words of encouragement.