A STORY WORTH TELLING
The man came into the ER at St. Joseph Hospital that afternoon with a painful red streak that started at his wrist and was rapidly working its way up his arm.
The staff immediately recognized his problem as necrotizing fasciitis, (commonly called “flesh eating bacteria”), which had started with a small hand wound. Knowing this was a serious condition, the staff understood the patient needed surgery, and he needed it fast. They contacted a doctor who happened to be on call, an orthopedic surgeon, alerting him to the need for speed.
When Dr. X arrived, the agonizing streak had already reached the patient’s elbow. Joaquin Garcia (not his real name), was in trouble, and the hastily-gathered surgical staff recognized this as well. Aware that many of Garcia’s relatives had gathered in the waiting room, the hospital sent somebody out to warn next-of-kin that the patient’s prognosis was not good. The relatives were advised to go home and wait, but they wouldn’t. They chose to stay.
Meanwhile, the operating team began assembling instruments. After giving Garcia an injection of a powerful antibiotic, the team went to work. Because the infection was moving so rapidly up the fascia (connective bands of tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels), the anesthesiologist had to get him down fast, and then the surgeon was forced to lay open the man’s entire arm, starting at the wrist and ending at the chest wall. The only way to stop the bacteria’s progress was to get ahead of the bacteria’s onslaught and expose the man’s fascia to the outside, making it available for direct contact with the air. The operating team, collected randomly from professionals on call, worked fast and in perfect harmony.
Even so, the patient clearly hovered near death. After four or five hours, the surgical team had done all it could, and were forced to leave their patient to the hospital staff, painfully aware that he had a 95% chance against him and might not last the night.
The next morning, to Dr. X’s relief, Joaquin Garcia was still alive. And slowly, making inch-by-inch progress, the man came back to life. At last the surgeon was able to offer an announcement to the still-collected relatives. “We believe Joaquin will now recover and probably be okay.” The entire waiting room, it seemed, burst into applause.
It was only in retrospect that the surgeon, a Caucasian, began thinking about the collection of people who had worked so hard to save Joaquin’s life. Besides their efforts directed toward a Hispanic patient, the anesthesiologist had been African American. The scrub nurse was Arabic, and the circulating nurse was Asian. That day, it seemed, no two people in the operating theater had been from the same ethnic background.
To the surgeon, the most interesting feature of the event was that nobody seemed to notice their diversity. Even better, had any of them noticed, none would have cared.
This is a story I’ve always loved, a tale I heard long ago and firsthand from the surgeon. From time to time, in the intervening years, it's come back to me as a moment of pleasure.
But now, with so much inflammatory talk suddenly making headlines, the event seems more relevant than it’s ever been before. I find myself thinking about it often . . . this moment that proves what my grandchildren have demonstrated they already know—that ultimately, for good or for bad, people are just people and race is merely a bit of history.