A woman assaulted with a box-cutter finds a friend and guide in her plastic surgeon.
I’ve never sailed through triage this quickly. This time, there is no triage. They’ve been waiting for me, the emergency department staff. And my mother, standing at the door, searching for the ambulance that would bring me in.
After the initial, swift examination I’m declared to be in stable condition. The police enter the room and begin asking questions, questions so repetitive that I finally break down and cry—I’ve said this all already!
The plastic surgeon arrives. He introduces himself, coughing, as Dr. S. Later I learn that he left his own sickbed when he heard what had happened—that I’d been finishing a jog along New York City’s East River in broad Sunday afternoon daylight when an “emotionally disturbed person,” who is still at large, punched me and slashed me, ripping apart the flesh between my hairline and the corner of my eye. In fact, if Dr. S. hadn’t been battling a fever of 102, he’d have been away this weekend, golfing in Florida. But this is a man who, as I would learn later, rushed to help at the World Trade Center on 9/11. A little fever won’t stop him now.
This is a teaching hospital, and Dr. S. is something of a star. He explains to a younger, less experienced onlooker what he is doing, which instruments work best (he has brought his own).
At some point, I break in and ask, “How many stitches?”
Dr. S. replies cheerfully. “Oh, 36. Double chai.”
Despite the pain, I laugh. I can’t help wondering about divine intervention. Barely an hour earlier, on the cold ground of the jogging path, I thought it quite likely that I would bleed to death. Now, I am thinking about chai—the Hebrew word for life, also spelling out the Hebrew number 18, the reason why so many Jews, myself included, write checks to charities and bridal couples and newly certified bar and bat mitzvah teens in multiples of 18. It’s a good-luck number. Indeed, especially when Dr. S. opines on the type of blade the attacker wielded—a box-cutter—I feel very lucky now.
Dr. S. advises me to call his office and arrange for the first of many follow-up visits. When an earthquake devastates Haiti months later, we discuss it in that office. “I’m expecting you to go there,” I tell him. But he shakes his head. It has taken him this long—over eight years—to recover from Ground Zero. The people going to Haiti, he says, won’t ever be the same.
Next to Ground Zero or Haiti, my life seems laughably inconsequential. Still, there are worries. The form I receive before leaving the hospital that Sunday afternoon warns that cuts to the face “usually heal quickly, but need special care to reduce the scarring.” Keep the cut clean. Apply antibiotic ointment. Remove “scabs and crusts” with a cotton swab “moistened with clean tap water.” Boldface lettering emphasizes that “if you allow a scab to stay on too long, it may leave a wider scar when the stitches come out.”
My luck will hold. Not only will Dr. S. have performed expertly, not only will the scabs and crusts be removed in time, but I will benefit from expensive, effective laser treatments at Dr. S.’s office. Just as the discharge instructions promise, the scar will finish healing in “1–2 years.” Until then—and because Dr. S. insists that I visit his wife’s Madison Avenue stylist for a new look, which he arranges to pay for himself—I’ll wear bangs.
But on that first day, Dr. S. leaves the ER, and, eventually, so do I. A nurse brings a navy sweatshirt and matching sweatpants for me to wear home. “We only have extra-large,” she apologizes. She makes a small tear in the collar of the sweatshirt, widening the space for my now-stitched and rebandaged head to pass through. I move, slowly, through the hospital’s doors. The next morning, as instructed, I’ll call the office. If I have to make this journey, I already know that I’m lucky that Dr. S. is my guide.
First Person originates at the other end of the stethoscope, presenting essays and commentary from patients, consumers and other medical outsiders. Proto invites your contributions; please send ideas to the editor.