Accounts of Argentina, Alpinism, and Abdominal Surgery
I watched the abdomen fill with bright red blood.
Trying to slow the bleeding with sterile gauze was as effective as drying out a swimming pool with paper towels. As the blood in her abdominal cavity continued to rise, I felt my own leave my head and my racing heart block my throat.
Four years ago I was in the hospital’s surgical suite performing a “routine” spay surgery for a dog. She was a ten-year old Rottweiler and nearly twice my weight.
As any veterinarian knows, a simple spay surgery in an obese and elderly dog can easily become a nightmare. The ovarian artery is encased in fat and the ligament difficult to feel. The fat creates more bleeding leading to poor visibility in the abdominal cavity.
In this case I knew I had inadvertently severed the ovarian artery. There was too much blood to believe otherwise. I had to find the pulsing artery in that messy cavity and ligate it or she’d die.
In stressful situations of any kind, above all it is essential to stay calm. Do not let the adrenaline surge cloud your sense of reason.
“Oh no. Oh shit…” I was able to muster through the surgical mask under my hyperventilated breath.
These are words you hope a surgeon never says. Also ‘oops.’ We were actually instructed in veterinary school never to say any of the above- you’re supposed to say ‘THERE’ no matter what.
Easier said than done.
I called for help. Soon Dr. V appeared, a veterinarian I worked with at the time. His presence through the swinging door was angelic. He scrubbed in with me and assisted in the surgery, holding back appropriate organs to help me try to visualize where the bleeding was coming from.
“Well, at least we have thirty minutes. That’s how long it takes before an animal bleeds out from an arterial tear,” Dr. V calmly recalled.
This was not so reassuring.
Within a few minutes (that seemed to last hours) we were able to locate the bleeding ovarian artery and tie it off with suture. The rest of the surgery was uncomplicated and the dog recovered well.
But at that moment when I watched the blood rapidly filling her abdominal cavity, surgical instruments useless in my hands- I felt trapped. The thought of that dog dying on my behalf was unfathomable. I wanted to just say okay, I’ve had enough- then crawl into a dark hole until someone else took over and not resurface until everything was finished.
Some people thrive in stressful situations, like my friend Leah, an emergency veterinarian in Manhattan. I am not one of those people. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t meant to be a vet forever.
This month Chris and I are rock climbing in Argentina, and most days I feel far removed from my years of practicing veterinary medicine- it almost feels like a different life. But a few days ago we were chatting about the mindset involved in alpinism- how different it is from other types of climbing. It brought me right back.
Chris and his partner, Bruce, had just successfully climbed Fitz Roy, the biggest tower in Patagonia. Over four days they had hiked over trails, talus, and glaciers (where an avalanche later covered their fresh tracks), bivied in winds strong enough to roll him over in his sleeping bag, climbed 40 pitches to reach the summit, and rappelled 32 times simply to get back to the base, leaving another 8 hours back to the main road before hitchhiking back to town.
“The commitment required in alpine climbing can feel overwhelming. It’s definitely not comfortable,” said Chris.
That stressful day in surgery- I knew that feeling all too well.
Being in Patagonia, an alpinist’s dreamland, part of me feels like I should join the party in the peaks. But the truth is, I have no desire. I enjoy viewing the ridgeline of famous towers from the small town of El Chaltén. I love playing in the boulder fields and checking out the bolted lines a few hundred yards from our casita. I’m happy tooling about town, trekking, and practicing my Spanish with the locals.
It’s not that I’m commitment-phobic. I have no trouble devoting myself to hard sport or trad projects, to training, my education, my friends, or my marriage. It’s just that alpinism feels like a whole new level to me- and for someone who can handle fear with other types of climbing, alpinism seems absolutely terrifying.
Our friend Bruce is an accomplished alpinist and described how the fear factor is controlled through familiarity and comfort level. With more knowledge comes more familiarity, resulting in a more comfortable experience. Alpinism is also his favorite discipline of climbing.
Bruce made it sound so simple, but the level of devotion it takes just to attempt something like the tower of Fitz Roy is one that most climbers will never experience in their lifetime. And I’m sure that achieving a goal of a higher commitment level with greater consequences yields a heightened sense of satisfaction- so they say.
But I’m still not sold on the idea of alpine climbing.
And maybe it’s because I’ve had that rush of adrenaline before. I know how it feels to be fully committed with serious repercussions. All I have to do is close my eyes and think about that day in the surgical suite years ago…
The day I almost had to tell the owners their dog had died and it was no one’s fault but my very own.