I picked up the knife, trying to imitate the man I had once in my life seen perform an amputation, at university. I entreated fate not to let her die at least in the next half hour. ‘Let her die in the ward, when I’ve finished the operation…’
I had only common sense to rely on, and it was stimulated into action by the extraordinary situation. Like an experienced butcher, I made a neat circular incision in her thigh with the razor-sharp knife and the skin parted without exuding the smallest drop of blood. ‘What will I do if the vessels start bleeding?’ I thought, and without turning my head glanced at the row of forceps. I cut through a huge piece of female flesh together with one of the vessels – it looked like a little whitish pipe – but not a drop of blood emerge from it. I stopped it up with a pair of forceps and proceeded, clamping on forceps wherever I suspected the existence of a vessel.
‘Arteria…. arteria…. what the devil is it called?’ The operating theatre had begun to take on a thoroughly professional look. The forceps were hanging in clusters. My assistants drew them back with gauze, retracting the flesh, and I started sawing the round bone with a gleaming, fine-toothed saw.
‘Why isn’t she dying? It’s astonishing…. God, how people cling to life!’
Mikhail Bulgakov, ‘The Country Doctor’s Notebook’
I am happy to report that my first encounter with Mikhail Bulgakov has been a great success! We managed to hit it off splendidly, much better than I had expected. Incidentally, this was also my first encounter with one of the Russian literary greats. I am now seriously looking forward to getting better acquainted with the some of the other Russians as well – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov et al., all of whom I have long had an interest or fascination with, but somehow have yet to get down to reading any of their works. Till now.
Although my chosen route to getting acquainted with Bulgakov was not by way of his most acclaimed masterpiece, The Master & Margarita, it was nonetheless a most rewarding experience to meet him at his twenty five year old self, when he was Dr Mikhail Bulgakov, a fresh medical school graduate who had just been posted to a far flung rural Russian village. The nine partly-fictional, partly autobiographical stories in this collection are inspired by the eighteen gruelling months between 1916-1917, where he had given of his services as a medical doctor. Each of the stories are told in a down to earth manner, revealing the different feelings of fear, doubt and inadequacy that the poor young helpless doctor had to deal with and conquer, in order to get the job done. In many cases, it’s usually a matter of life and death.
The reader is given a close up glimpse as to the thoughts and emotions running through the heart and mind of the young protagonist with each emergency procedure he has to perform, with each decision he has to make. And all this is to be done with no help or advice from any contemporary or senior staff as he is the only doctor running the hospital with just a medical assisant and two midwives to aid. That, and thankfully also for the volumes of medical texts stocked up by the previous doctor in residence. Reading the intense accounts of emergency amputations, of the insertion of steel windpipes into the throats of toddlers, of complicated childbirths, of journeying through deadly blizzards in order to get to the patients, and other equally trying scenarios, one cannnot help but be taken along for the roller-coaster like experience! There is also one particularly gripping and intimate first person account of an individual’s slow descent into drug addiction. A very powerful depiction of the horrors and evils of drugs, once they are abused. A truly recommended read, to one and all.
I am really looking forward to reading ‘The Master & The Margarita’ next.