Tag Archives: Surgery

Touch Wood

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 58
Occupation: Physician
Residence: River Forest, Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/16/2016
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: E.N. is a 58-year-old obstetrician gynecologist who was born in Boston, Massachusetts to two attorney parents. She stumbled upon medicine in college as a psychology major when she took a biology class and became aware that she had an affinity for science. E.N. currently practices full time in the Chicagoland area delivering babies and performing gynecological surgery.

 

Main piece: As a surgeon, whenever we do GYNe surgeries in the operating room, I find that all obstetricians gynecologists are pretty superstitious. So after we complete a surgery, we never REALLY complement ourselves and say “that went really well” because that would jinx us, so we always just say, if we DO say anything about how the surgery goes, we have to always add touchwood at the end so, “that surgery went pretty well touch wood,” because we know we’re really not out of the woods for at least 48 hours.

 

Q: Why do you do this?

 

E.N.: I do this as a safeguard against something bad happening.  It’s more of a superstition.

 

Q: Who did you learn it from?

 

E.N.: Have no idea who I learned it from – likely my parents.

 

Performance Context: Gynecological surgeons would perform this after they had completed a surgery.

 

My Thoughts: Medicine and superstitions tie into each other. Though medicine is not typically based on luck and is more based on hard science, I think it is interesting that the phrase “touch wood” is still used. It is used as a preventative measure: it is sometimes believed that if something is said, then it won’t happen. In this scenario, if a doctor explicitly says a surgery went well, it is believed by some that the surgery will not have positive results in the end. Saying “touch wood” is a preventative measure to make sure that what has been said continues to hold true.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than be good.”

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian- American and "mix of other ethnicities"
Age: 58
Occupation: General Surgeon
Residence: San Diego, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 3.23.12
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Saying described verbatim by informant and his wife:

“We use that a lot at work, in surgery, in medicine. And there are there are times when (pause) no matter how good a surgeon you are the result is not what you hope it would be, the patient doesn’t do as well. You can do the same operation the same way, you know, the same way on ten people but you can get you know 3 or 4 different results and so. It’s not to belittle anybody’s effort or ability but sometimes it just matters you know how the cards are dealt. And uh an example, another example would be: we take call at night, you work all night. Some nights a guy will be, won’t have any emergency surgery to do and he’ll be able to sleep all night and there are other nights where the guy is up All night uh through no fault of his own just happened to be a night where a lot of people showed up in the emergency room. So we always look at each other and we say ‘Well, it’s better to be lucky than good’ cuz no matter how good a surgeon you are you’d rather be lucky and not be working all night. You’d rather be the lucky one that gets to sleep.

I don’t think that phrase is unique to surgeons or in the medical world.

(wife’s interjection speaking quickly and emphatically: You’ve been saying that since the day I met you. You didn’t say that as a surgeon. You said that, when I met you you were saying that. Because you said you were good all the time and you had no luck. You used to say that all the time, I’d say like you know “You’re so good,” and he was like “Yeah, well sometimes its better to be lucky than be good.” And I was like, “Well what do you mean by that?” You’re like “You know I have no luck” Kay, not for nothing, you’re a pretty lucky guy, you work really hard but some people work really hard and they don’t get places, but that’s for another day)

(In answer) Well, there’s also the expression that you make your own luck, so. But I don’t, I didn’t realize that I said that so often but I don’t think the phrase is unique to me. I think I heard it from someone else.

(wife: No, of course not. But it obviously spoke to you. Right?)

I always think of my brother P. (P is an name substitute to keep confidentiality) cuz my brother P. was kind of an imp of a boy, always in trouble, but he was always incredibly lucky. I mean he he

(wife speaking as he spoke: The luck of the Irish!)

never got caught by the cops, he uh um he did very well playing cards um always had luck with cards (laughing)

(wife: Always had incredible luck with women)

Yeah well, he was very handsome so he didn’t have to be lucky

(wife disagreeing: Uhhh, I’m sorry)

but but uh certainly, Certainly when I’d look around at how hard I was working at school and he was still pullin good grades uh, usually he was lucky he had a good teacher or he had a good friend.

(wife’s question: Did he get good grades?)

He got okay grades, much better than he deserved (laughing) so.”

Obviously this proverb applies to numerous situations. For my informant, it held truth in both his professional and personal lives. With a high-stress high-stakes job as a general surgeon, the subjective reality of treating patients sometimes can only be justified and understood with the concept of luck. Since their work holds great consequence to people’s lives, when things don’t work as they “are supposed to” it can be a heavy blow to both their conscience and confidence. Being a good surgeon and doing things exactly as they are supposed to isn’t always enough to save someone, and that can understandably be a difficult concept to wrap their heads around. Also, the absurdly difficult “On Call” shift in the Emergency Room overnight takes a lot out of surgeons physically and mentally. Having the luck to sleep through the night is often favorable to performing surgery all night; even though you may be a good surgeon and can help people, there’s luck in the sense that people aren’t sick and don’t need help, which in turn is lucky for surgeons who can then get some sleep. So far as my informant’s personal life, he sees his impish younger brother as having luck in the sense that things easily work in his favor. Naturally, a man who by both his wife’s and his own description is a “good,” hardworking person, it’s easy to view the luck and ease his bad-boy brother always had as both irritating and enviable. Good for him that he can smile and laugh about it. In this manner, the proverb is almost a calming truth; not everything is within your power. That luck is an important concept to my informant whose family is a mix of Italian-American and Irish-American, among other things, isn’t so surprising.

Feet First from the O.R.

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian-American, Puerto Rican
Age: 56
Occupation: Registered Nurse
Residence: San Diego, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 3.23.12
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish, Italian

When transporting a patient on a gurney out of an Operating Room, you must have them exit the room feet first. Never head first, because that means they’re dead.

Informant’s description of the practice verbatim:

“I was called overhead in my surgery center where I work as a Registered Nurse, to please come in and help in the moving of the patient from the O.R. table into the recovery room, which is where I work. And so I walked in and I hadn’t been there very long and I went to move the patient from the table of the O.R. to the gurney for transportation and as I went to pull the patient out it was natural for me to have the patient come out of the O.R. room door head first. And I was immediately pulled, they pulled back on the gurney they turned it around and said, “Oh no, no, no. You’ve gotta make them come out feet first.” And I said “What are you talking about?” and they said “It’s just what we do we never allow a patient to come out head first because when you’re coming head first out of the O.R. it means that you’re dead” and so I don’t know where that comes from and I don’t know if everyone uses that but the people in that O.R., in those operating room suites believe it.

I don’t believe it and I respect it so I wouldn’t do it any other way because they all believe it so I’m not going to change that. I would never dream of changing that… And they are very adamant about it. Really adamant about it. They’re like “OH NONONO” (laughs) I’m like okay, “Sorry!”

When you’re feet first your like about to step on the ground, so you would like. I dunno, so if you were to walk, you would step out, so if you were coming head first you were falling? I dunno but if you were to come feet first I guess you’re walking on your feet so then you’re not dead, you’re alive.”

My informant’s guess as to why feet first is necessary and head first means the patient’s dead is what I would think as well. I think that bodies at morgues are pulled out of temporary storage head first. Bodies in caskets are carried head first into churches and funeral cars. Maybe this practice has something relation to not handling post-surgery-bodies (which in a way resemble the dead) like the dead. A lot of folk belief exists among health professionals, but the O.R. is a particularly important place because every procedure, every surgery is dangerous and gravely serious, whether it’s for a boob job or something life-threatening. My informant has been an R.N. for thirty-odd years, and has been married to a surgeon for the same length of time, this was her first time hearing this rule.