He was theatrical - for a surgeon - and made a real song and dance about the state of my inner right ear. At the time, my Ear, Nose and Throat man must have been at least eighty and he spoke with strong traces of a German background.
He diagnosed a blocked Eustachian tube as the cause of my hearing loss, tinnitus and constant, pounding headache. Then raised his voice and told me how he would have to knock me out so he could remove the impacted debris; there was no other way. He apologised for the inconvenience (mine) of having to go into hospital, but his eyes twinkled as he began to describe the marvellous design of the ear and the medical procedure he intended to perform on me. At that point I didn’t know whether to stay or run.
A week later, when an orderly wheeled me into the operating theatre, I spotted my ENT man standing in front of a wash basin, his back to the room. He wore a cap and a lengthy, white surgical gown, and stayed focused on the intense ritual of scrubbing of hands. Antiseptic foam, saffron in colour, covered his fingers, hands and arms up to the elbows, and as he moved, all the soapy bubbles glistened under the bright lights.
I wanted to call out to him, “Yoo-hoo, I’m here.” Maybe the pre-medication had made me giddy. He was far from giddy that day. I sensed a different mood in him - no meet and greet, or silly jokes. He had donned his serious hat and seemed captivated by all the drama of the occasion. A perfect example of a man in his element.
After the operation I lay on a bed, in a freezing, recovery room wondering how to stop my teeth chattering and knees knocking together. My whole body shivered uncontrollably for some time until a nurse passing by noticed and came to my rescue with a warm, cotton blanket from a heated cupboard. At times like that, small things mean so much and fill you with gratitude. Never have I been more appreciative of a cosy blanket and a kind, attentive nurse. I could have hugged her.
I revisited my ENT man later that week and announced my name to his wife who made friends with each patient while manning the reception desk. She was the long-suffering type who’d heard her man’s favourite jokes multiple times during their married and professional life. She had no qualms about rolling her eyes and yawning at his attempts at humour. That day, despite a waiting room full of witnesses, the no nonsense wife in a loud articulate voice, told the aging doctor it was time he seriously thought about stepping down. While she was bent on retirement, he maintained complete indifference to the notion. He simply shrugged his shoulders and toddled back to his room with his next victim, who happened to be me.
He told me to sit, and while I perched on a wooden chair he fossicked about trying to find my medical notes so he could reacquaint himself with my condition. As he scanned the text, his face contorted into a series of frowns and grimaces. He then took great delight in telling me about the disgusting stuff he’d excavated from my ear. Apparently, the build-up of ear wax and infected matter he’d sucked out of my Eustachian tube had been GROSS. He pronounced GROSS in the most guttural manner his German accent could muster then put on his headband and head-mounted light. Next, he approached me with a torch-like implement - it may have been an otoscope – and proceeded to examine the inside of my ear.
“That’s better,” he said, backing away. “Now for the scream.” He scrutinised a collection of sterile instruments lined up on a silver tray alongside wads of gauze. Among the items, I spotted an ear speculum, aural forceps, syringes, swivel knives, retractors, and body hooks - some of them tapered and needle like. I wondered which tool of torture he would use to probe the channel to my ear drum.
Right then a horrendous scene from the movie Marathon Man sprang to mind. And my belly muscles tensed. The film starred Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. Dustin, the victim, was tied to a chair in a dingy, abandoned warehouse. Laurence, a German dentist, was hell-bent on locating a hoard of valuable diamonds. In order to extract information from Dustin, he unwrapped a pouch of ominous looking, long, sharp dental tools. He used a pointed, metal implement to probe deeply into a cavity in Hoffman’s back tooth. The dentist kept repeating, “Is it safe?” in a grave tone which grew increasingly menacing. The desperate Dustin, panting in fear, and drenched in sweat, replied, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Getting nowhere, the balding, bespectacled Olivier lost all patience and proceeded to drill into one of Dustin’s healthy teeth. He had already warned him how intense the pain level would get when he bored into a live nerve. When it happened, Dustin screamed. Unable to tolerate the agony, he passed out.
And the movie screen went black.
With these terrifying images in my head, I heard my quivering voice question exactly what the ENT man meant by ‘the scream.’
Nonchalantly, he answered, “Oh yes, the scream.” I watched, suspiciously, as he rummaged around in a desk drawer. He was behaving strangely and humming at the same time. I didn’t like it one bit.
While he searched for whatever he had lost, I became aware of my pounding heart, my damp hands, and their vice like grip on the chair’s arm rests.
He said, “Aha, here it is.” Reached into the drawer then approached me with something in his hand. Something white. A mischievous expression skittered across his face, like someone enjoying a private joke.
This, he said, “Will go in your ear now. The scream.”
Then he enunciated his words, more slowly, more clearly. “This cream,” he said, before squirting it in.