Heart of the matter – An Irishman’s Diary on how washing your hands can bring the past to life

“I saw something strange. It was a younger man with a passing resemblance to myself dressed in hospital gear not unlike our heroic health workers.” Photograph: Getty Images

“I saw something strange. It was a younger man with a passing resemblance to myself dressed in hospital gear not unlike our heroic health workers.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

While washing my hands for what seemed like the 658th time the other day, I saw something strange. It was a younger man with a passing resemblance to myself dressed in hospital gear not unlike our heroic health workers.

He had a little blue tie-on plastic cap on his head and a white surgical mask over his nose and mouth.

He wore a long green hospital gown and had sterilised blue plastic covers over his shoes.

As I began to sing Happy Birthday for the fourth time and raised the lather to the thickness of whipped cream, I realised this was not a miraculous vision. It was a memory from the first day of November in 1996 and the younger man in hospital garb was just me in the days when I had hair.

The scene took place in an operating theatre of the Bakulev Centre on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow and I was playing a minor role. Other players included Dr Mikhail Kukulev from the medical journal Bolnitsa and a surgeon called Sergei Nikonov who told me in a very stern voice not to touch anything green.

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, newly re-elected as president of the Russian Federation, was due to undergo a heart bypass procedure and I was interested

There was a green tube close to my right foot. It led up to an operating table where a man’s chest had been cut open to reveal his heart.

It was now time for the star of the show to arrive in the theatre. Enter Leo Antonovich Bokeria (laureate of the Lenin and State Prizes of the Soviet Union, Member of the American Association of Thoracic Surgeons and Honoured Scientist of the Russian Federation). His gown flowed behind him like Superman’s cape, miniature binoculars were attached to his eyes to give him Superman’s X-ray vision, and an air of invincibility emanated from his entire being.

He was ready to begin work on a triple-bypass operation to the heart of an elderly man from the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk a nine-hour flight away from Moscow.

Boris Yeltsin, late former president of the Russian Federation. File photograph: Getty

What was I doing there? Well that’s a question I was asking myself at the time and here’s how it happened. Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, newly re-elected as president of the Russian Federation, was due to undergo a heart bypass procedure and I was interested, on behalf of the readers of The Irish Times, in how the operation would be done.

Coronavirus - symptons

I was told that Leo Bokeria, a Moscow-based surgeon from Georgia, was the man to talk to.

I rang him and he immediately said: “Come to my office at 11 am on November 1st.”

I arrived on time prepared to interview him on the highly technical subject of cardiac surgery.

After the usual introductory formalities and a short comparison of life in Ireland and Georgia, Prof Bokeria suddenly went into imperative mode. He pointed at a wash-hand basin in the corner of his office. “Over there,” he commanded. “Time to scrub up.”

My present-day handwashing is what triggered the memory of the scrubbing-up and what followed nearly 24 years ago.

I was urging the operation to succeed as his heart was stopped and he was connected to a heart-lung machine. I urged him on even further when his heart was cooled with ice

A nurse entered with the gown and the mask and the hat and the shoe covers. It quickly dawned on me that this was not going to be the interview I had anticipated.

Scrubbed-up, gowned, hatted and shod, I was marched down to the theatre and positioned considerably closer than today’s prescribed social distance to a patient under deep anaesthetic.

So there I was, standing almost beside the head of an anaesthetised stranger as Prof Bokeria wielded his special electronic scalpel that relayed all his intricate moves to a group of medical students elsewhere in the building.

It was a bizarre experience in itself but something stranger still was happening. I was bonding with the man from Khabarovsk.

I was urging the operation to succeed as his heart was stopped and he was connected to a heart-lung machine. I urged him on even further when his heart was cooled with ice to a temperature of six to eight degrees so that things could progress safely.

The man from Khabarovsk had become “my patient.” I wanted him to come through. I even invented a name for him. He was now “Ivan Ivanovich”.

I pictured his wife, his children and his grandchildren hoping for good news all that great distance away near China.

The news was good. The operation had been a success but, I was told, complications could arise during his recuperation.

After I had returned to The Irish Times apartment on Bolshaya Spasskaya in central Moscow, I found myself phoning the Bakulev Centre from time to time in order to enquire about “my patient’s” progress. The news was good.

It was a brief insight into how rewarding it can be for brave healthcare workers when they have made a very big difference to the life of a human being and his loved ones.

They continue to do so in Russia and in Ireland and throughout the world at this very difficult time. I think of them and wish them well every time I wash my hands.

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