Paths Not Taken

Originally Posted: October 25, 2010

As an adolescent, my path was laid out as neatly as Dorothy’s yellow brick road: I was supposed to be a heart surgeon like my father, whose thoughtful, ambitious nature I’d inherited.  All through boarding school, the idea of finally pleasing my temperamental dad shimmered like an illusive Emerald City, shooting me to the top of even the dullest science classes (though secretly, I lived for Mr. Stevens’ Honors English).

During my second year of pre-med, my dad invited me to observe a quadruple bypass.  The patient—a man in his 50s—was lying exposed on the operating table when I took my place at his inert head.

I looked on for over three hours while my father and his partner severed the poor guy’s sternum, pried apart the ribcage, siphoned his blood through a heart-lung machine, excavated for veins, all the while talking about the A’s win on Sunday; their golf handicaps; plans for the upcoming weekend.  By now, the patient was flayed like a salmon.  Dad cracked jokes and listened to Miles Davis.  This was how they endured a typical workday, of course.  These guys were pros.  I admired them. Still, I couldn’t imagine ever taking on this level of detachment. I couldn’t stop thinking about the state of the man’s soul, his relationship with his wife, the terrible job that had probably led to his heart condition, his family waiting in the outer room: did they know that their loved one was being brutalized in the name of healing? I kept wondering about the spiritual implications of having your blood siphoned through a machine… Would this change him in some fundamental way?

This line of questioning fascinated and exhausted me, and in the middle of the 4th bypass, I fainted.  I would have tumbled smack into the open chest cavity, but one of the nurses caught me, escorting me to a metal chair on the sidelines, where I sat out the remaining hour in shame.  When it was over, my father stood before me in his scrubs, pulling off his white latex gloves, shaking his head.

It seemed I wanted to get inside people, only a bit less literally. So a year later, having abandoned my pre-med studies, I was packing my things to drive to Massachusetts, where I’d been accepted into an MFA program in writing.

I wish I could say it was easy from there—that I published within months.  It actually took another decade or so (and many false starts, and enough rejections to paper a small room).  Once you veer off the well-trodden path, there’s a bit of bush-whacking to do.  But for me, there was simply no turning back, though I do sometimes wonder how the folks are doing in Oz.  I do occasionally sigh over the ski vacations my heart-surgeon alter-ego is enjoying.  And a few weeks ago, after reading my novel, my dad called.  He wanted to say that he liked the story, and he’d decided that perhaps writing was a good choice—something I ‘might want to pursue,’ after all…

Posted by: Dori

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