In June 2007, in a small room that leads into the operating theater, a middle-aged woman lies on a metal trolley. She is here for a hysterectomy, though no one mentions this. She has a cannula taped to the back of her left hand through which her anesthesiologist—a craggy, compact man, handsome, with dark hair graying at the temples and deep-set eyes—will shortly administer a milky drug called propofol.
The anesthesiologist is Ian Russell. The woman, whom I will call Jenny, answers Russell’s questions in bright monosyllables and rolls onto her side and bends her knees obligingly to her stomach, as instructed, for the trainee anesthesiologist to insert first the injection of local anesthetic to the skin and then the epidural cannula through which the nerve-blocking drug will be pumped to switch off sensation in her lower torso. The doctors give directions and make small, cheerful jokes. “[This will be a] little bit ticklish,” says Russell, as the needle is about to enter, and then when Jenny appears not to notice, “Not ticklish. You’re no fun!”
Jenny laughs thinly.
As he works, Russell issues instructions and explanations to the trainee anesthesiologist who is still trying to insert between two vertebrae the implausibly large epidural needle. Then we move through the double doors into an operating theater the size of a small classroom.
Machines bleat and instruments clatter as Russell and his trainee attach monitors. Russell puts a long perpendicular strip of Perspex under Jenny’s body at shoulder height; on top of it is a black mold with a concave channel running its length. This supports Jenny’s extended right arm. Then he attaches a black cuff around her forearm. At her elbow he attaches two more leads that will allow him to send small electric shocks to the nerves which run down her forearm into her hand, to make sure that her nerves and hand muscles are still working when the cuff is inflated.