To Afterlife and Back: Tales from the Operating Table


To Afterlife and Back: Tales from the Operating Table

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Everything was a little different in my house. Where my friends had their dollhouses, skateboards and teddy bears, I had my father’s blunt scalpels, empty syringes, and stethoscopes. When my friends came over to play, I’d be the surgeon and they the ones in need of having their brains reattached to their bodies after a road accident. My mother realised that my fascination with my father’s profession bordered on the obsessive, when she found me playing a game of pregnant lady with a guy friend of mine (obviously, he was pregnant and I was the one administering the C-section). It was then that my parents decided it was time to deglamourise surgery.

I sat across the table from my father, who asked me, very matter of fact, why I liked surgeries so much. I told him I just wanted to see as many internal organs as possible. At which point he looked at me as if I’d just said I wanted to be Hannibal Lecter when I grew up.

His face grew grave, his voice dropped a few octaves, and he told me, operations aren’t a joke. Operations are serious. They’re life or death. Some people live. Some people die. And some people dangle in between, like a pendulum between the surgeon’s fingers. He said the ones who almost live are frightening, because you feel a sense of control and vulnerability when a patient regains consciousness and attributes it to you. But the ones that almost die are downright terrifying.

He told me about this one patient, a young chainsmoker in his mid-twenties with tumour-laden lungs. He’d been in and out of my father’s operating room throughout the year and this last operation was a dire, seven-hour surgery. At one point, my father said, he thought the patient would code: His vitals were unimpressive and he just didn’t seem that inclined to hold on to life.

But my father continued operating any way. He remembers using a drill on the smoker’s ribcage to continue with the procedure, how his blood pressure dropped and spiked several times in seven hours, and how, my father and his team thought they’d lost him. When the patient woke up, he asked for my father. So like the good post-op caretaker that he is, my father went, readying for another “thank you for saving my life, doc”.

The charm of cutting open people lost its appeal once I realised that I’d be setting something free that could watch over me and criticise me later.

Instead, the patient sat with his arms folded, clearly upset, looking at my father like he were an unwanted customer care executive. “That was not the surgery I was told about!” he complained. “You didn’t brief me about the drill. What if there was some permanent damage, I almost died back there!”

My father was stunned. How did the patient know about the drill and the coding? Did the anaesthesia not take? No, said the patient, I was knocked out. “But once you cut me open, I flew out of my body. I was sitting on the bulb right there, I saw everything you did,” he said. Then he proceeded to describe all the instruments that my father had used, everyone else who was in the operation theatre with him, and who said what and when. He had actually seen everything, in an out-of-body experience.

Dad told me this story on a dusty, peak-summer UP afternoon, but I distinctly remember feeling cold. I also remember feeling a lot less love for surgery. The charm of cutting open people lost its appeal once I realised that I’d be setting something free that could watch over me and criticise me later.

However, my father wasn’t done with these traumatising stories. He told me how two out of three hypoxic people see their dead relatives in the room. There was a woman who hallucinated and screamed blue murder so hard, that the walls of the OT shook: She was seeing her dead, abusive mother-in-law in the room, cackling at her, come to take her to death. That woman did not survive the surgery.

Then there was this man with a strange “light at the end of the tunnel” story, usually experienced during a near-death experience. Dad would tell me that most patients do not remember what happens once that tunnel appears. They just remember a long stretch of blackness and then light, glimmering at the tail end of it. A lot of patients wake up with stories of freefalling through the tunnel, hearing voices that beg them to just fall a little further, a little closer to death. When the light is close, they are jolted awake.

My father told me that this man was coding, and aggressive resuscitation was being performed on him. But this man had a different story. He said he was dragged to the tunnel. He remembered trying to scream, the viscosity of air turning to water, his organs feeling soggy with effort. He said he heard demonic screaming, someone laughing in a guttural fashion, like an animal who’d learnt the human language. He said his toenails felt hotter and hotter the closer he got to the tunnel.

The patient then heard a loud knock on the other end of the tunnel, the one he was being dragged away from. And he started hearing my father’s voice, calling his name. So he started inching upwards and the animal voice that was laughing suddenly became angry and started swearing at him, telling him he’d be dead, in two minutes.

The patient did eventually get more than two minutes. The operation was successful and he was doing better – except, he refused to speak to anybody for a month afterward. And then overnight, inexplicably, he was gone in his sleep. This story was delivered by his mother; he’d told her about his hellish NDE just days before his death.

In all honesty, my father had only been prepping me to take surgery more seriously when he told me these tales, but it had the opposite effect on me. My fondness for the practice died before it reached the operating table. As much as I would love to save lives, it would haunt me to lose them. I don’t think anybody is qualified to do the job of standing between a dying person and their death, telling them which side to choose. But I have immense respect for the people who do it anyway.