Before We Disappear.
Innsbruck, Vienna: Haymon, 2018.
211 S., Hardcover, Euro 20,90.
We defibrillate pigs in kiddie pools. For my dissertation. We anesthetize the pigs, we induce ventricular fibrillation, and then we defibrillate them.
Yesterday it was Adelheid’s turn. Adelheid is a two-year-old sow and she’s not doing well. That night I defibrillated her four times, and now her heart is flickering all over again. I monitor the adhesive electrodes on her ribcage and press the button. Adelheid convulses.
"Very good," says Ed, "Sinus rhythm." Ed’s a nurse on the Oncology ward and earns a little side money in the animal lab. Her real name is Edna, but everyone calls her Ed because she doesn’t like Edna. I get that. My name is Benjamin Marius Maier. I don’t use the Marius. It sounds as if my parents wanted to call me Maria but didn’t have the guts. And Benjamin, not Ben. Ben sounds like a hard dick.
I can just barely feel Adelheid’s pulse at her groin. It’s weak, but rhythmic. Her blood pressure is too low on the monitor and I ask Ed to please turn up the adrenaline. She presses a few buttons on the motorized injector. The monitor beeps and Adelheid’s blood pressure rises.
After resuscitating a person, you can cool them down with water to protect their brain. If it goes without oxygen for too long, they’re brain-dead and the resuscitation was pointless. But you often have to defibrillate patients, which naturally requires electricity. And no one knows what happens if you do that underwater. Hence the pigs and the kiddie pool.
The pigs would just have been slaughtered anyway. With us they get good feed and real straw, and in they end we put them under so they don’t feel anything when they die. They live well.
To fibrillate their hearts, we make an incision in their groin and run a catheter up to their hearts. You need to get close for it to work. But it’s not enough to stimulate the heart mechanically – to poke it, in other words. You need an electrical stimulus. At one end of the catheter is a box that looks like a bomb from a movie. It’s a plastic case with red, yellow, and blue wires and dials that control the current. That’s how you give the pig’s heart the electric shock it needs to fibrillate.
"Okay," I tell Ed. "She’s stable now. Coffee?" Ed says, "No thanks, I’ve got the day shift."
"Are you coming in to the ward tomorrow?" she asks, and I say, "Yup."
My residency in Ed’s ward starts tomorrow. I just need four more weeks as a resident, three exams, and the dissertation; then I’m done with my studies.
I have no interest in oncology. I never cared about the different chemo treatments for eighty types of lymphoma. If they are different. The only interesting medication, historically speaking, is cyclophosphamide. It’s basically mustard gas, with one atom replaced for another. There were side-by-side diagrams of the two molecules in the textbook: mustard gas and cyclophosphamide.
"Where should I report tomorrow?" I ask and Ed says, "Just stop by the HR office on the ward. I’ll show you around." "OK," I say. "See you tomorrow on the ward." "See you tomorrow." She takes her bag, pats Adelheid on the cheek, and leaves.
On the surveillance screen, I see her pause in the hallway next to the plant, pick up hydroponic pellets from the floor, and return them to the pot one at a time.