Dave Barry

This won't hurt a bit

(This Dave Barry column was originally published Jan. 21, 1996.)

I will frankly admit that I'm afraid of medical care. I trace this fear to my childhood, when, as far as I could tell, the medical profession's reaction to every physical problem I developed, including nearsightedness, was to give me a tetanus shot. Not only that, but the medical professionals would always lie about it.

''You'll hardly feel it!'' they'd say, coming at me with a needle the size of a harpoon. As a child, I was more afraid of tetanus shots than, for example, Dracula. Granted, Dracula would come into your room at night and bite into your neck and suck out all your blood, but there was a positive side to this; namely, you could turn into a bat and stay out all night. Whereas I could see no pluses with the tetanus shot.

Of course, today I no longer have this childish phobia, because, as a mature adult, I can lie.

''I just had a tetanus shot this morning!'' I can say, if the issue ever arises. ``Eight of them, in fact!''

But I'm still afraid of medical care. And I'm not encouraged by TV medical dramas such as ''E.R.'' If you watch these shows, you've probably noticed that whenever some pathetic civilian gets wheeled into the hospital emergency room on a stretcher, he or she is immediately pounced upon by enough medical personnel to form a hospital softball league, all competing to see who can do the scariest thing to the victim. Apparently there's a clause in the standard Television Performers' Contract stating that every character in a medical drama gets to take a crack at emergency patients:

First doctor: I'll give him a shot!

Second doctor: I'll pound his chest!

Third doctor: I'll stick a tube way up his nose!

Fourth doctor: I'll find an unoccupied section of his body and cut it open for no good reason!

Janitor: I'll wash his mouth out with a toilet brush!

Now you're probably saying: ``Dave, you big baby, those are just TV shows. In real life, bad things do not happen to people who fall into the hands of medical care.''

Excuse me for one second while I laugh so hard that my keyboard is short-circuited by drool. Because I happen to be holding in my hand a bulletin-board notice that was sent to me by a Vermont orthopedic surgeon named either ''David H. Bahnson, M.D.'' or ''Oee Bali,'' depending on whether you're reading his letterhead or his signature.

Dr. Bahnson told me, in a phone interview, that he found this notice over the ''scrub sink,'' which is the place where doctors wash their hands after they operate so that they won't get flecks of your vital organs on their Lexus upholstery.

No, seriously, the scrub sink is where they wash their hands before operating, and Dr. Bahnson said that this notice had been prominently displayed there for several months. It is entitled -- I am not making this up -- ``Emergency Procedure: Fighting Fire on the Surgical Patient.''

Yes, you read that correctly. Dr. Bahnson told me that, although it has not happened to him, fires sometimes break out on patients during surgery, particularly when hot medical implements accidentally come into contact with surgical drapes.

The bulletin-board notice discusses two types of situations: ''small fire on the patient'' and ''large fire on the patient.'' There are step-by-step instructions for dealing with both of these; Step 3 under ''large fire on the patient,'' for example, is: ``Care for the patient.''

I was surprised that the procedure was so definite. You'd think that, what with all these medical lawsuits, the instructions would call for more caution on the part of the doctors. (''Mrs. Dweemer, we think you might be on fire, but we won't know for sure until we have a specialist fly in from Switzerland to take a look.'' )

Now, before I get a lot of irate mail from the medical community, let me stress that not all surgical patients catch on fire. Some of them also explode. I am referring here to an article from The Medical Post, sent in by alert reader Lauren Leighton, headlined: ''Beware Exploding Patients.'' This article states that nitrous oxide -- which is sometimes used as an anesthetic in stomach surgery -- can get mixed up with intestinal gases, which have been proven to be highly combustible in countless scientific experiments conducted in fraternity houses. If this mixture is ignited by a spark from a surgical implement such as an electric cautery, the result can be what the article refers to as ``intra-abdominal fires.''

In what could be the single most remarkable statement that I have ever read in a medical article, one expert is quoted as saying -- I swear this is a real quote -- ``Patients aren't exploding all over, but there is the potential for it.''

Ha ha! I certainly am feeling reassured!

No, really, I'm sure we're talking about a very small number of patients exploding or catching on fire. So if you, personally, are scheduled to undergo surgery, you needn't give this matter another thought, assuming that you have taken the basic precaution of having a personal sprinkler system installed on your body.

No, seriously, I'm sure your operation will go just fine. And even in the unlikely event that you do explode, you may rest assured that, no matter how many pieces you wind up in, every one of those pieces will, in accordance with modern medical standards, receive a tetanus shot.