I've actually forgotten that I am staring at a human heart. It's more like a really intricate craft project, complete with filament-thin hooks and long, white sutures. But faster than you can say " Grey's Anatomy, " I am jolted back to reality. "Get some gloves on," says the good doctor. I stare blankly. "Let's go," Oz repeats, "glove up." I look behind me to see who he's talking to. No one is behind me. Three thoughts flash through my head: "Oh my God! Oh my God!" And, "Oh my God!" "That's okay," I say quickly. "I mean you guys are doing fine. Really. Maybe I can make a little Starbucks run—who's up for a Frappuccino? Anybody? Anybody? Anybo—" "Can someone help Lisa get gloves on, please?" Oz says, as he examines the new valve. Six seconds later, my hands are encased in latex and Dr. Oz is placing pieces of calcium plucked directly from the aorta into my trembling palm. "See the spongy part?" he asks, "and over here it's cracking a bit, you see that? Give it a squeeze. This stuff here can break off and cause a clot." As Oz pokes, prods, and continues to teach, I silently tick off the list of foods I will not be eating again. Bye-bye bacon, farewell fettucine...it's like a very special episode of Scared Straight.
The ability to remain upright when hit with a handful of yuck has earned me a five-minute break. Oz and I take a seat in the lounge. Somebody stops by to thank him for seeing her cousin; somebody else wants a picture. Finally we are alone and I can ask the question I've been thinking about all morning. "Mehmet, what's it like to hold someone's life in your hands?" Oz is quiet for a minute. "You know, the heart always used to remind me of a python. I'd see it beating away and think it was about to spring at me," he says. "But gradually, you realize that it's not the enemy, and you begin to embrace it." I get the python thing; what I don't get is how you handle the responsibility for keeping it beating. Oz tells me a story. One New Year's Eve, a man thanked him for saving his wife's life. But the man made it extremely clear that he felt the one who actually deserved credit was a far higher power than any surgeon. Oz doesn't tell me if he believes that matters of life and death are ultimately up to God, but he does say that "if you start believing your own bullshit—thinking you're infallible—you're going to start making mistakes. Everyone's got an ego, but the operating room has to be a place of controlled arrogance." We adjust our masks and walk back to the OR. "Will she be okay?" I ask, probably looking as anxious as the people pacing the waiting room. "She'll be sitting in a chair by tomorrow," Oz assures me.
Still, I stick around until they warm her blood, wean her from the heart-lung machine, get her heart once again beating on its own, and repeatedly promise they don't need me there to help them close.
I head out of the hospital, into the drizzly afternoon. I look at the people racing for cabs, buying the paper, checking their BlackBerrys, and I can't help wondering what's in their hearts. What are their most ardent desires, their secret shames...their cholesterol levels?
If we're smart, we shop for whole grains and pray for good genes and go to the gym and hope for the best. But as I learned years ago on a damp day a lot like this, the body is breakable. This morning I saw living proof that if we're lucky, it can also be fixed.
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