Blood dripped from the patient’s thumb as an intern jabbed the crescent needle into the nail. The man felt no pain, as he’d received painkillers moments earlier. Clad in a scratchy lab coat, I watched the needle travel through the jagged wound and a knot pull the two sides together.
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“¿Vas a hacerlo la próxima vez?”
I laughed nervously and looked at my supervisor, Doctor León. I hoped there would be no próxima vez, because I would not stab a needle into human flesh and then stitch it up like a throw pillow.
Don’t get me wrong—the opportunity to spend the night observing an emergency room in Cochabamba, Bolivia, wasn’t one I’d pass up. When I’d signed up with Projects Abroad to go on the medical education trip, I’d been frothing at the mouth to observe consultations and see surgeries (or cirugías, as I’d learned recently).
But I’d been in Cochabamba over a week, I missed my parents, it was late at night, and I was tired of listening to Spanish… And now was not a good time for that aguja being jammed into that uña.
I was determined not to look away, though, as la interna continued tying neat knots along the opening. I noted that she was using el punto simple, one type of surgical knot we’d learned yesterday. We’d practiced stitches on chicken feet (detached from the chicken), but it would be much more difficult on a human. Plus, on the chicken foot, I could just pull out a tendon if it got in my way.
I looked at the blood and skin that was congealing in the drip container. Doctor León nudged me closer to the table. My stomach turned.
The radio in the corner of the room crackled to life.
“…My shrink is telling me I got crazy dreams / She’s also sayin’ I got low self-esteem / She’s kinda hot though…”
I recognized 5 Seconds of Summer’s new hit single. I had a bizarre and inappropriate urge to giggle.
“She’s kinda hot though…Just a little bitty itty bit hot!”
Here I was in a Bolivian emergency room watching a guy get his thumb stitched up, surrounded by blood and needles, and suddenly…5SOS? (Pronounced 5-sauce, by the way.) The patient, whose wound was only half-stitched, was describing how his dog had taken the chunk out of his finger. Meanwhile, the 5SOS song had transitioned into a wah-wah-wah-y guitar interlude. I had to cover my mouth and bite my palm to keep from laughing.
Doctor León, who must have thought that my hand covering my mouth indicated a desire to hurl, asked me if I was okay.
And all of a sudden, I felt very okay. “Sí,” I responded. “¿Puedo acercarme?”
Doctor León smiled and I moved closer to the table to watch the intern complete the final stitches. You know, maybe I could do it the next time…
No, I didn’t end up giving anyone stitches, which was probably best for any potential patient. But I learned that a moment of anxiety and queasiness could turn into something funny at the the click of a radio dial. I learned to find that humor whenever I had a difficult moment traveling, like when our plane was delayed or when I got a stomach virus and had to communicate my symptoms to the doctor in Spanish.
And now whenever I hear 5SOS, I think fondly of blood and stitches and my wonderful, hilarious moment in the Bolivian sala de emergencia.
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