Life & Death as Artists

Blue Corrosion
Originally uploaded by boardhound.
I watched a man die the other day.
And I watched another man fully alive a few days later.
Both works of beauty, of art.

I had been waiting for a case to start when the ER sent up a 70 year old who had been hit by a car going 30 MPH. I took my glances into the trauma OR, watching Docs try to save him, his left side wide open, his face a mess. The guy standing next to me as I watched through the window gave a play-by-play: “Oh that’s not good they have both kinds of paddles.” “He’s not going to make it... uhp, see there he goes.” And over time, after numerous revivals, the old man was dead. I, though, had to get ready for my case.

After prepping for the Renal surgery I was to be a part of I stepped out to get some water and walked by the 70 year old man’s body. He was lying in a body bag near the water fountain, with security guards, and waiting for transport. Correction. His body was. He was gone. It was a bit surreal.

As I headed back to my operating room I looked in another room where another man’s leg was cut wide open prepped for cleaning. I could see every detail of his leg from his knee to his foot. It was absolutely amazing.

Then I watched, in my case, as a surgeon did some of the most outstanding work and poetry laparoscopically I have ever seen, as he removed our patient’s kidney. I stood in awe, thinking to myself, “I have the coolest job in the world.”

I’d seen people dead before. But there was something about the combination of all these events that day. When I started the morning, I recall asking God that I would see him in the OR. I did. In the man’s death. In the leg cut wide open. In the mastery of a surgeon. And in my own life.

The old man got out of bed the same day I did, only he didn’t know that it was his last time to get out of bed. He probably didn’t see the car until it was too late, much less see that his 70 years were over. I can’t help but believe God did, though. Whether that is right or wrong, or good or bad is beside the point. There is something awesome in it.

I had a professor once who had been a paramedic. We were trading stories and he said to me over lunch, “I can’t help but believe we were made to live forever, because I have seen some bodies that were so torn up they shouldn’t have lived, and they did.” I think about that a lot, and especially when I look into the leg of a man waiting surgery and see the beautiful detail.

It was a few days after that day in the OR that I was listening to Mako Fujimura talk about how fragmented humanity is, how de-humanizing our culture is and how it is the job of the artist to speak to re-humanizing our selves, our culture. He wasn’t just speaking from some lofty ideal. This is something he has been learning for years, if not decades. I’ve heard him say it before, but it meant something more in light of all the humanity that was sprawled on OR tables just days before. And he was saying it from a broken hearted passion fully alive.

Are we not fragmented? Is not your reading this on a web page, and not hearing it out loud over a beer with me a form of fragmentation? Are we not self absorbed, narcissist fighting to be less whole when we isolate ourselves, when we guffaw at the nightly news, when we think the person next to us is something less than human because of her weight, his political views, her religion, his sexual preference, his homelessness, or skin color?

Do we not really long not only to be connected with another, but to really know what is Human? Are our heart’s not aching for beauty that goes below the surface, and speaks in a language without words?

We will all die like the old man someday. Maybe not so traumatically, maybe not so late in life. But it’s coming. And I don’t say it to be solemn and morose. Walking by his body I was reminded more of life than death. I was reminded that he lived 70 years, with a story that will never be told again. While at the same time, I was reminded there was another man’s life in OR 10 we were extending beyond the current 48 hard years he already had under his belt.

Joseph Beuys is known for saying, “Everyman is an Artist.” And is it not the unique quality of humanity that every man or woman, a created, brilliant master piece of art, actually has it in them to live a life that creates art, too? Our bodies are just the foundation of a life, already full with outstanding beauty. What are we going to do, then, with the rest of the humanity we have in us waiting to burst on a canvas?
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