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Two weeks later, I'm wrapping paper slippers over my shoes as one of the nurses says, "I take it you've never witnessed an open heart surgery?" Her look tells me that watching all 11 seasons of M*A*S*H doesn't count. Suddenly I regret that the patient consented to having a guest reporter around and my palms are sending flash flood warnings to my wrists.

"You might not want to be here when the band saw comes out." I've received plenty of good advice in my day, from "pack a sweater" to "stay in school," but I am particularly grateful when Dr. Ryan Davies, the chief resident who will be assisting in today's procedure, directs that little nugget my way before I can wander smack into Quentin Tarantino territory. The bottom line is this: Try as one might, it is impossible to unwatch something. And so it comes to pass that I am standing outside operating room 23 not watching while an 80-year-old woman has her chest cracked open as part of an aortic valve replacement that, if all goes according to plan, will take approximately six hours and give the woman an extra ten to 15 years of life. It is her first (and God willing last) major cardiothoracic surgery. Here's hoping I can say the same.

Tentatively I step into the OR. It's a shockingly ordinary room—no glistening tile, no shiny viewing gallery that might allow me to observe the proceedings from a semi-bloodless distance—just plain manila walls with "Evacuation Plans" taped unobtrusively off to the side ("Step 1. Remove patient from site of fire. If hair is burning, extinguish the flames") and a dull blue linoleum floor. "Can you see everything from all the way over there?" cardiac surgeon Mathew Williams calls to me, knowing full well that I can see nothing from the spot I have staked out directly in front of the exit. "Yep, pretty much everything," I answer as casually as I can. But nobody's buying it, and a small step stool is positioned at the head of the stainless steel gurney. I am then invited to take a closer look, "so in case you ever feel like replacing somebody's aortic valve, you'll be ready."

Gingerly, I tiptoe around video screens and over cables, skirt the heart-lung machine and the two perfusionists in charge of it, duck under the beeping monitors and beyond the busy nurses, the visiting med students, the tubes coursing with blood, the bag filling with urine, and, with all the enthusiasm a girl who passed out cold when she got her ears pierced can muster—I step onto the stool, peer down into an open chest, and stand utterly transfixed by a stranger's beating heart.

I am amazed, I am mesmerized, I am nauseated. It's remarkable how much can be read on my face despite the fact that half of it is concealed by a mask; the anesthesiologist to my left would prefer that his patient be the only woman in the room to lose consciousness today, but he is a realist. "Hey listen," he says, "if you're going to fall, do not fall forward."

What it's like to be 18 inches from a stranger's beating heart

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