THINGS LOOK BETTER IN BLACK AND WHITE
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
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
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
Email address is now – theneulings@Juno.com