Have you ever watched a surgery? Not on TV or through the veil of an observation deck, but in real life while standing right next to the actual patient lying on the table? Unless you’re in the healthcare field, I’m sure your answer is no. It’s not exactly a common experience you can buy tickets to – you know, because of the whole germ thing and all.
I did once, when I was about 8 or 9. At the time, my dad worked at an animal research lab and I spent many weekends visiting the animals. I loved it – it felt like they had a whole zoo happening there with monkeys, rabbits, dogs, llamas, and probably more I’m forgetting now. I avoided the llamas because they spit and looked mean, but the dogs were great and the rabbits adorable. The monkeys, however, were my favorite: I can still vividly remember how excited they would get when I’d come in to see them. Screaming for my attention, wrapping their long, dark hands around the bars, answering my “hi guys, how you doing today?” inquires with loud hoots and spastic jumping.
Back then I didn’t think about the complicated politics of animal testing, although I did bombard my father and the other staff with questions like why are the animals here, where will the monkeys go after, why can’t they go back home, sick with what, why do they have that, how did they get sick, can you make them better, what kind of surgery, can’t they just come home with us and on and on and on and holy heck, someone give this kid a lollipop and get her out of here already.
Enough of those questions eventually led to my front row ticket to a brown Labrador retriever’s open heart surgery. The doctors suited me up in scrubs, made sure I was properly sterilized, and stood me on a stool at the head of the table. I was beyond nervous and took the whole thing very seriously: this was super important adult business and I was going to be a part of it. Clearly these people recognized a fellow expert when they saw one. I was going to become a famous surgeon and cure animals all over the world.
That career lasted about 30 seconds: when the bright lights came on, I started sweating uncontrollably beneath my face mask, and the moment the surgeon sliced open the dog’s chest I took one look at that beating heart and passed right out. To this day I have no idea how I managed to avoid landing on that poor dog in my fall.
My dad still blames the heat of the lights for my fainting spell, but I’m pretty sure that beating heart is what did it. It just seemed so real and alive – I honestly think it blew my little kid mind.
While I didn’t end up becoming a famous animal surgeon, that lab did help me realize the career path I was better suited for: natural-born researcher and writer. Shortly after that fainting episode, I decided to change course. I kept at the questions and interviewed the staff, took pictures of the animals I visited, wrote about it all, and then shared everything I learned with my classmates. And to this day I don’t think anyone doubts I made the right choice. Especially that lab staff.