By Mark Neuling – Videographer
CNBC – Palo Alto


It was early, very early. On those days when I had to start long before sun up, I’d quite often shave the night before, sleep as late as I could and then just shower and dress before leaving. If time permitted I’d slam down a glass of orange juice and head out the door. I had a long drive to San Jose to pick up our Creative Services Director and then we had to be in place at one of the local hospitals to observe a surgical procedure.

At the small independent broadcast station where I worked at for many years the photographers wore many hats. Some days I shot news or sports, other day’s it would be promotional spots or public service announcements. But the bulk of what I shot were commercials for the production department. And this was to be a production video.

One of the local orthopedic back surgeons had developed a new surgical technique that he wanted us to film so that he could show a taped, greatly condensed version of the procedure at a medical conference a few months in the future. Surgeons were not our usual clients. Most of the car dealers, clothing stores and mom and pop business establishments that were our clientele would never consider a ten thousand dollar budget for one of their commercials. But a doctor who would think nothing of the greens fees at Pebble Beach, wouldn’t balk at a five-figure budget like this.

I’d shot surgeries before and a number of times since. But since this was for a presentation that would be made to medical professionals we would have to approach it differently. That’s why Allen and I were there that morning. We had to figure how to get on to tape what the doctor would need for his presentation without getting in the way of the surgical team and compromising the patient’s safety.

The surgery was only for the most desperate of back patients. Patients in sever pain, usually caused by a herniated disc in the lower back. Pain that travels like a hot iron pressed against the back of your leg. Pain so intense you can barely move, much less even walk. I know, I’ve been there and my discs aren’t even herniated, just worn out from years of lugging TV gear about.

Once the herniated disc was removed, bone was taken either form the hip or from some of the near by vertebrae, ground up and placed in a small metal cage. If you can picture a small sink strainer you’d have a pretty good idea of what the device looked like. Once in place in the spinal column the idea was that the living bone would grow in the cavity, thereby negating the need for the doctors to fuse the spine. Under normal conditions this was maybe a seven or eight hour procedure, with months of recovery time.

Allen and I had to gown up to enter the operating theater. Head to toe we wore the same booties, gown, hair net and mask as the doctors. There were two kinds of masks that we could wear. They type with strings that tie around the mouth and the type with an elastic band that’s exactly like a painter’s mask. Wanting to be as cool an observer as possible I choose the standard mask with strings and cinched it as tight as possible over my mouth and nose.

In to the operating room we were led. The doctors wear an added blue-colored sterile gown over their scrubs. It’s a relatively small team for such complicated surgery; the chief surgeon, another doctor assisting, the head nurse and an anesthesiologist. Other nurses, x-ray technicians and doctors are constantly coming in and out, sometimes to change shifts, assist or to ask questions. Some of the surgical tools were actually kept in a red Sears Craftsman tool box, the kind that you’d find in an auto shop or airplane hanger. Of course there’s a CD player. Different doctors prefer different types of music during surgery; I’ve heard everything from reggae to classical. Some surgical wards have an intimacy not too far removed from the TV show MASH. And there Allen and I were, off to one corner out of the way.

I had dressed as nice as possible, Dockers and a pair of loafers. Shoes that looked nice but that gave me no support. My own back had been bothering me for months, a constant ache, and the more time I spent on my feet the greater the pain became.

Shortly after our arrival in the operating room the patient was rolled in. A woman in her 40’s I’d guess, naked as the day she was born. Eventually she would be turned over and draped with sterile sheets, only her head and the surgical wound exposed. But she hadn’t been fully prepped yet. I averted my gaze. Even hidden behind his surgical mask and cap, Allen had a twinkle in his eye the likes of a Liz Taylor diamond. It was like watching the Cheshire cat in scrubs.

There we hid, out of the way in our quadrant of the operating room. Very suddenly I began to feel light-headed, I couldn’t get any air, the mask seemed so darn tight. I knew I was on the verge of fainting and didn’t want to do it in an operating room full of doctors. Somehow I made my way past Allen and out the door into the vestibule. About all I remember of being in the hallway was a crash and then a brief moment of blackness. Someone helped me up, I think the put me in a wheel chair and carted me off to the emergency room.

For two hours they held me there. I’d cut the bridge of my nose in the fall; fortunately I didn’t need stitches, just a band-aid, a visible red badge of courage. They took x-rays, and didn’t find anything. (Pun intended) Somehow the insurance never paid for the x-ray and I got stuck with the bill. Most importantly I got some food in my stomach. Feeling more embarrassed than ill I made my way back to the operating room where the operation was well underway.

I wanted to believe that no one saw me as I entered the operating room. The doctors were too busy with the procedure to notice me; at least I hoped they were. Allen was pretty much still in the same place he was when I’d left. He looked at me and asked how I felt. He was just as anxious to leave as I was. He’d seen all he needed to see in order to plan the shoot, besides it had been hours since he’d had a cigarette.

We’d let Allen smoke in the van. He’d crack the window a bit and let the smoke billow out. My friend settled into his seat. He’d heard stories of soldiers standing at attention with their knees locked for long periods of time who’d fainted dead away on the parade ground. After a few more drags on his cigarette he cracked another of his wry smiles. “Do you want to know what the anesthesiologist said about your fainting spell,” he asked? “Not really,” I said. “But I’m sure you’re gonna tell me anyway.” “Well,” Allen continued, “ he thought that maybe you’d never seen a naked lady before and that all the blood went from your head straight to your…” (I’m sure that the reader can fill in the blank here).

Red faced I drove back to the station; needless to say it was a very quiet return trip and of course I had to endure several days of teasing from the staff at the station about my fainting spell at the hospital.

A few weeks later, during a shoot, my own back felt as if it melted down. I would spend two days flat on my back, I could barely walk for a week; I wouldn’t be able to return to work full-time for nearly four months. I ended up missing the shoot at the hospital; and I was glad.

But things went on without me. The shoot happened, it was successful and the doctor was pleased with the results. An interesting thing happened during the edit. The young woman who was assigned to edit the project was so queasy with the graphic operating footage that she didn’t feel as though she’d be able to edit the piece. But being the trooper that she was, she managed to find a novel way to do the project. She simply turned all the color monitors to black and white and merrily went on her way about the edit.

Well I thought that would be the end of it. But about a year and a half later the doctor called us again. He had further refined his surgical procedure and wanted to hire us to produce another tape. Since there was no need for a sight survey this time around our crew was scheduled for another operation.

Of course I was concerned about whether or not I was going to pass out again at the sight of blood in the middle of an operation.

The day finally dawned for our production. We filed into the hallway outside the operating room, more than likely the same place I’d passed out in a few years earlier. Before we put on our scrubs we had to clean off all our gear. We were given a bucket of warm soapy water and some wash rags and proceeded to wipe down our equipment. It’s funny how much dirt can come off the legs of tripod. As we scrubbed our photography equipment the nurse in charge commented that they had had a cameraman faint a few years back. I looked up at her rather sheepishly and admitted that I had been the one to keel over outside of her operating room. She grinned a small grin turned and walked away.

Once inside the joke became apparent. The anesthesiologist made a very big deal of retelling the story about the naked lady and the cameraman who did a swan song outside the operating room. I just gave him my best Clint Eastwood glare and went about my job.

That day the shoot went fine. It was fascinating to watch the surgical team operate inside the body of their patient. The blood and bone didn’t faze any of us. Of course the viewfinders of our professional cameras are black and white, and sometimes things just look better that way.

All opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

© Mark Neuling 2005
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