My Mercy Memories--Not All Were Sweet

Mercy Medical Center-photo courtesy Chicago Tribune

Mercy Medical Center-photo courtesy Chicago Tribune

Mercy Medical Center filed for bankruptcy yesterday. That’s a pity for the neighborhood, losing a source of medical services in an area that lacks sufficient resources. For me, it unlocks memories from almost 45 years ago, when I had more hair, less belly, and a whole lot of medicine still to learn.

In the summer of 1977, just entering my third year of medical school at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, I spent a grueling summer doing an eight-week internal medicine rotation at the old U of I Hospital. I was scheduled to follow this up with another two months at the “U” doing a surgery rotation. A bird whispered in my ear that if I wanted a posher palace for my introduction to surgery, I should arrange a switch to Mercy Hospital.

At the time Mercy was part of the Metro Six, a group of community hospitals including Illinois Masonic, Lutheran General, and Weiss Hospitals with a training affiliation with the University. I applied to the Dean for a schedule change using some vague reason and about a week before my surgical rotation was about to start, got the notification that my change had been approved.

In contrast to the in-depth, hands-on patient care I experienced on the internal medicine rotation at the University Hospital, my eight weeks at Mercy was truly a posher experience. I was on a service with two surgical residents, neither of whom had much interest in teaching. I can visualize their faces, but not recall their names. I learned to do pre-op physicals, learned how to scrub into an OR, and learned how to tie surgical knots on a practice knot board. But I never held a scalpel or dislodged an internal organ. My OR time was spent suctioning body fluids, retracting fat, and somehow managing to annoy the anesthesiologist.

One unique aspect of the surgical rotation at Mercy was dog lab. As horrible as it now sounds, students and residents spent one afternoon a week in a shed on the parking lot performing surgery on canines. I don’t know where these unfortunate beasts came from, and now I can only regret my actions, but I did manage to do some bowel resections—and according to the keeper who managed the menagerie, my victims did ok post-op. The only saving grace is that since that time Barb and I have given many four-legged friends a wonderful home.

Barb also experienced Mercy. Rules were much laxer in those days, and I had no difficulty obtaining permission for her to spend a day in the hospital with me, including time in the Operating Room, a first for her. She was carefully positioned by the surgical team, not too close, but still with a view of the procedure, an inguinal herniorrhaphy on a young man. The patient was prepped, surgical drapes placed, and the scalpel wielded. As blood seeped from the incision, I heard a groan and turned to see Barb beginning to wobble. She was hustled from the OR, a victim of too much gore–hard to believe she went on to spend a career dealing with messy post-op wounds!

I never did another general surgery rotation. As I became a surgical pathologist, I realized that a better understanding of surgery would have helped me in working with surgeons during intra-operative consultations, but I had lost my chance. I will never think like a surgeon–but damn, I can tie a good knot!


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