By: John E. Fenn
(published in Whitney Word-Vol. 32, No. 3-June 2016)
To the best of my recollection it was about 1970, when I had completed my training in general and cardiothoracic surgery at Yale-New Haven Hospital, that I was offered the opportunity to be the team doctor for the University of New Haven varsity hockey team. While this seemed to be a way to embellish my modest salary as a relatively new member of the Yale Department of Surgery faculty, it was also attractive because I had a young son who was playing youth hockey and had come under the mentorship of the varsity hockey coach at UNH, a truly fine man.
My responsibilities in the role of team doctor were not extensive, and consisted of attending the home games of the team and rendering whatever care was necessary, primarily suturing the inevitable lacerations that seemed to be an integral part of the game in the days preceding the protective face masks that ultimately came into common use. In addition, some of the players adopted me as their mentor and father figure to whom they could pour out their problems and receive solace when needed. One player, who had outstanding skills but lacked the emotional dedication needed to play varsity college hockey, commonly complained of feeling ill after the first period of the game. He preferred to come and sit next to me in the stands behind the home team bench so that I might listen to his personal problems and attempt to provide comfort and advice. My deal with the coach was that I always had the final say as to whether or not a player was able to “be on the ice,” so when I declared to the coach that “Bob” was unable to continue in a game, that was final. My skills as a psychiatric mentor clearly kept me restricted to the specialties in which I had been trained, i.e., general and cardiothoracic surgery.
Also, my attendance at the varsity games was limited to the home games: thus I
relinquished the care of the players to the various physicians who were in attendance at the games played at other sites.
It was one very cold winter night when the team was off to West Point, New York, to play the cadets in a crucial match at the Tate Rink. As I recollect, I was getting ready for bed at about midnight when the back doorbell of our home in Woodbridge rang repeatedly. When I came downstairs and turned on the outside lights, there were three UNH team members at the back door, one of whom had a bloody, disheveled bandage covering his forehead. Of course I let them in to our kitchen immediately and learned quickly that the player had been injured during the game at West Point but had refused to allow the Army doctor to suture his wound, reserving that privilege for the only real doctor that he knew, yours truly. My wife, who was fortunately a nurse with both medical and surgery experience, by this time had come downstairs to determine the origin of the loud conversations emanating from the kitchen. Imagine her surprise when she found the three burly UNH hockey players who had invaded our kitchen after midnight!
Now I had the dilemma of what to do with this nice young man who had a significant laceration on his forehead over his left eye, still bleeding moderately when the temporary dressing was gently lifted. We clearly had no suitable stretcher, lighting, or gurney to use, although I did have a sterile suture set and instruments in my hockey travel bag. Since the students had already traveled all the way from West Point and were exhausted, I was reluctant to turn them away and send them to the Emergency Room at Yale-New Haven Hospital. There was only one thing left to do.
We were fortunate to have extensive counter space in our kitchen, one area almost long enough to accommodate this rather large hockey player as long as he kept his knees flexed. My wife managed to find a flashlight with adequate illumination, I put together a package of sterile solutions to cleanse the laceration area, and with the instruments and suture materials at the ready, and with my wife providing lighting with a steady hand while also comforting the patient, we were off on an adventure never to be repeated.
After a brief prepping of the laceration, one quick suture controlled the major bleeder, and another series of stitches closed the entire laceration. A sturdy dressing concluded the adventure, and off the boys went to their abodes, apparently satisfied that they had done the right thing. A week later when I removed the sutures, I was pleased that the wound had not become infected and appeared to be healing nicely.
We still talk about that night as though it had occurred yesterday. I do not recommend that physicians adopt this “kitchen counter” approach to surgical repair, nor have I ever repeated it.
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