Olan was the gentlest human I have ever met. He was a hugger, an inappropriate hugger. When he met you for the first time, when he laid eyes on you at work or in public, or pretty much when he was within ten feet of you, you required a hug. Your gender didn’t matter. Your age didn’t matter. Your belief about personal space didn’t matter. If you were remotely near him, you required a hug.
My wife introduced us at a holiday dinner party. He was a phlebotomist at the clinic where she worked. Before I knew it, this stranger had his arms around me. The sudden intimate contact caused an internal surge to crush his windpipe with my elbow, but somehow I was able to restrain myself. Maybe it was the hug’s accompanying words of “So nice to meet you.” Maybe it was my submission to the cultural norms of a public holiday party where you aren’t supposed to knock people out. Maybe it was the 2 whiskey sours I had finished or my wife’s steadying hand on my shoulder. Whatever it was, I managed to restrain all of my engrained military training and choked out, “Good to meet you.”
As soon as Olan and his wife moved on, my wife leaned into me and said, “Sorry about that, honey. I was hoping to give you a warning. I thought you were going to head-butt him.”
“I almost did,” I said, a bit shaken, a bit laughing, accessing my drink. “Wow, you’re right. That guy is a hugger.”
“The guy can hug,” she echoed.
I marveled at reality. Four months after meeting him, Olan the hugger stood in front of me, covered in blood, handing me a human femur. He looked at it before he handed it to me and said, “Looks like a good one.” Dumbfounded, I watched his eyes blink behind the surgical glasses. I had been recruited into a part-time “tissue recovery” job by Olan the hugger.
I swabbed the femur as trained, so that the tissue could be checked for any bacteria that would prevent transplant, then placed it in a large sterile bag. I could scarcely comprehend what I was doing. I just put a human femur in that bag!
Olan went back to the 78-year-old deceased white male who had passed away 6 hours earlier from a massive heart attack. An engine fired up. The scent of grilled steak filled the room. A pang of hunger hit me. Then I shoved it out of my mind as I realized that the smell was burning human muscle tissue. Mild nausea replaced the hunger pang, and I planned to scratch the organ donor sticker off my driver’s license as soon as we got out of our scrubs.
The boss of the whole operation was named Bill. Bill walked around like he owned the place. To a certain extent he did. The medical personnel disappeared when they saw us walking down the hall with our enormous duffle bags. They knew who we were and what we were there for. They couldn’t clear out fast enough. Bill seemed to like that. While we surgical-scrubbed our hands, he talked about all the people we were going to help by “recovering some tissue tonight.” I mimicked his every move, not because it was right or because he was someone I respected. I did it because I knew that he would take any opportunity he could to lord over any aberration from the sheer perfection that was his way. I thought I would try to spare myself a little misery and remained his quiet, studious pupil.
The operation got underway. The training video I watched the day before was helpful but nowhere near thorough enough. I got over the shock of it with a hug from Olan, and Bill let me in on every detail I missed or neglected. To be honest, I had a mild flashback to basic training except the Drill Sergeant this time was a portly fellow with a Daffy Duck scrub hat on.
Bill called the corpse by name, saying “C’mon, Alan, all we need is a little more blood for this sample. C’mon, Alan.” He was talking about how awesome his technique was and how Olan was “taking forever.” Then he said, “Here, hold this.” He handed me the corpse’s leg. “Milk the calf. We need blood.”
So I “milked” the calf. Taking Bill’s lead, I applied pressure with my hand and ran it from the cold ankle all the way down to the groin. Bill was stabbing the femoral area with a massive needle syringe and trying to draw back blood. After what seemed like a half an hour of this, there was enough blood. By the end of it, Bill was barking about “needing to hustle.” He looked at me, the new guy, and said, “The more time we waste f--king around leads to less viable tissue, risk for infection, all kinds of bad sh-t!”
So we hustled. By three AM Bill, Olan the Hugger, a refrigerated box full of dead guy, and I were on the road toward home. Bill said he “needed to talk to stay awake.” So he told me about how he loved women’s basketball, “college or pro it doesn’t matter.” He said, “The tits make up for the lack of physical ability.”
Olan said, “Aw c’mon, Bill, that isn’t right.”
Bill called Olan a f-g. Olan the hugger ho-hummed and danced around the swelling conflict evangelically. I remained silent and let my silence put Bill on edge. I didn’t care. I was tired and overwhelmed and losing my ability to tip toe around Bill’s semi-truck sized ego.
It never occurred to me that such a thing would exist, but what do I know about anything? There is a computer program that tracks dead or on-the-way-to-being-dead people. It lists the hospital name, the location, and the status of a dead or nearly dead person or people. For instance, 42 year old male in motor vehicle accident, expected to be dead in 2 hours. Wife driving in from out of state. Due to arrive within 4 hours.
Now about half to two-thirds of the doctors that I had ever met were in love with themselves, and I heard and saw surgeons being the most arrogant of the bunch. Stories circulated regularly about surgeons making a mistake in surgery then hurrying them out of the operating in room so the patient could crash on a medical-surgical floor. That way it didn’t show up on their statistics. I was becoming more and more aware that Bill seemed to think he was some sort of surgeon. He had not completed medical school. He had watched a series of videos and then butchered some corpses.
Bill nearly shouted at my silence: “How you doing back there? You asleep new guy?”
I watched the headlights spray the darkness and thought about how I had to be to my day job in less than 3 hours. I closed my eyes and didn’t respond knowing that if I expressed my nausea it would only result in an awkward hug from Olan in the back of that twisted, pervert van.