Layman Dispatches from the Operating Room


DISCLAIMER: There are graphic images in the slideshow.

I have been working on a re-write/update of the online MFA Documentary course that I teach at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. I devoted almost a whole class session to the topic of how to find a documentary project, with the main idea being that you don’t always have to go far, contrary to popular belief. The best documentary work seems to stem from what you already know well. That got me thinking about my own longest-running project — one that I was introduced to as a small child.

One of my earliest memories starts like this: it’s a brisk fall day, and the four-year-old me is on the back of a bike in a small yellow plastic seat. My helmet slides over my eyes from time to time but I see my Dad ahead, bent over the bicycle in concentration, glancing this way and that way, peddling and navigating through the busy streets of Göteborg, Sweden. I imagine that I see my legs dangle and jerk with every traffic-induced stop and start. We are on the way to the hospital. With memory it’s always hard to tell what part is fabricated and what part was actually real, but I know I saw sunlight glinting through reddish-orange leaves in trees overhead and that the air was crisp.

I have been going with my Dad to the hospital for as long as I can remember. That morning we were heading to Sahlgrenska University Hospital to check on patients (same place where Lisbeth from the  Girl Who Played With Fire book series recuperated in the 3rd book (I think). I don’t recall the first surgery I watched, but by the time I was eleven years old I had seen countless operations — the most memorable one from my childhood being the brain surgery in which I had a brief conversation with the patient all while watching his brain projected on a TV set in the background (often brain surgery requires patients to be awake). I wonder if that man recalls our brief chat.

I am sure it all happened quite inadvertently, but as it is, I grew up around surgery. When I started my photographic endeavors in college, I started to bring the camera into the operating room. I always had an enduring curiosity about it all, and even years later my Dad would inquire if I wanted to tag along — he still does, and I often go when I am in town. Obviously, this all started in pre-HIPPAA days. The images in this post are a small selection from a larger archive of images spanning a decade and a half — these images are from organ transplantation surgeries.

Organ harvests — when the usable organs from an organ donor are extracted for life-saving transplantation — always seem to occur in the dead of night. All is quiet and still in the hospital hallways except in the designated OR room where the organ donor lies breathing mechanically. There are several surgery teams, each specializing in a specific organ. My Dad covered the kidneys and sometimes the ever-finicky pancreas and for a spell he worked with livers. It all takes a long time, and there are big egos to be reckoned and tension echoing off walls alongside the mechanical bleep-bleep-bleep of the donor’s heart.

The very first time I witnessed a harvest I was 21 years old.  I fainted 4 hours into the operation after watching several buckets slowly fill with blood. I was mortified of course, but I was told that many medical students have a similar reaction the first time they see a harvest — a deep-seated visceral response to a controlled form of violence. The mind can rationalize what is happening, but the actual surgery itself is unspeakably strange — the strangest I have ever seen. To this day, transplantation surgery is the most horrifically surreal event I have ever witnessed — but also the most beautiful. It is so imperfect and Frankenstein-ish but also overwhelmingly hopeful, and full of yearning — it is an insistent, grasping and defiant embracement of life.


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