Parting Glances: A chance encounter with Dr. Heath

By |2018-08-29T15:57:59-04:00August 29th, 2018|Opinions, Parting Glances|

As a gay teenager I hung out at the Hub Grill in downtown Detroit, a greasy spoon of a place, located on the corner of Farmer and Bates Streets. It was in convenient walking distance of four quite popular gay bars, City Hall and the 1st Precinct Police Station.
Just out of high school I was eager to find work, and a gay friend named George “Butchy Trapezoid” Trapper told me that Harper Hospital, where he worked, was hiring high school grads to be trained as OR Techs — operating room technicians.
That sounded like a great lead for many reasons, one of which was that I was born at Harper Hospital (at the time, I hadn’t the slightest idea that my OR training would lead to what might well be the first coincidence of its kind).
I got my training started immediately and it lasted two months. I learned how to wash my hands with antiseptic, gown without breaking sterile scrub, how to identify and pass surgical instruments and chromic sutures, how to keep detailed records, use the autoclave, do sponge counts and, once, deal with a dying patient.
OR Techs all wore green scrub uniforms like physican interns, surgeons and medical students on learning assignments (If a patient called me doc or doctor I did little to dissuade them from the vicarious honor so accorded me. Suffice it that OR Techs wore no telltale stethoscope.).
In time, I passed instruments for several caesarian section births, witnessed a four-holed drilled craineotomy, circulated during dozens of tonsillectomies and attended while a patient died on the operating table. I and another OR tech ID tagged his right-hand thumb and toe, and took his body three flights down for temporary freezer storage. Our first experience with death, we sought to dispel the unexpected shock by touches of tension-easing humor.
The shortage of operating nurses during World War II — an understandable critical need — led at the time to the training of lay persons to fill the open positions. In the late ’50s, there was also an extensive surgical nurse need in metropolitan hospitals, and lay persons — high school grads, conscientious objectors to avoiding war service — were trained.
As a Harper Hospital OR Tech I made mental notes about who might be gay or lesbian. I suspected the rather-butch nurse responsible for keeping surgical tools sharp, honed and sterile was a lesbian.
We techs were also warned about the head of anesthesia. Not to accept rides on his summer yacht. There were at the time 13 operating rooms at Harper, numbered one through 14. There was no number 13.
Once I attended my third surgical go-around the sight of blood no longer bothered me. I also found out that surgery often was subject to participant talk about sports, touches of humor, and tension-dispelling banter among the interns, residents, and surgical chiefs.
Each surgery ended with what was called a “sponge count.” No surgical opening could be sewn shut until the blood-absorbing sponges were accounted for. None left in the patient.
Alas, one surgery a sponge was missing. We recounted and recounted. Finally, a resident physician admitted to standing on the truant sponge. Was it an accident or an OR prank? Whatever! Hemostats were passed. Chromic O sutures tied. The wound sealed with relief by one and all at the operating table (Hey! Don’t look at me, Mary!).
And! What may well be an item for the Guinness Book of World Records. I had the privilege of scrubbing with the doctor who brought me into the world, Dr. Leonard Heath (his name was on my birth certificate, “Oh, my God! You’re right. That’s my signature. Lucky guy!”).
Whether of not I was his first gay baby birth is not known. It was, however, I’m sure a memorable experience for me and, presumably — R.I.P. — Dr. Heath.

About the Author:

Charles Alexander