Written by Corrine Hickey
It is a summer afternoon in Westwood, Southern California, and I am 19 years old. The air is hot, no hint of a breeze under the broiling sun. I walk downhill over jagged sidewalk, terraced by roots, to Ike’s Place, a sandwich shop. Sunlight streams across persimmon colored tile as I enter the store.
In cut off shorts and a black t-shirt, I could be a customer, but I walk with authority past the register’s hungry line to the employee-only area behind the counter. First an apron. I pull a clean one off the rack and slip on the informal uniform of Ike’s Place. I tie the apron strings into a snug bow, double knotting for good measure. Next, a hairnet. I slip it over my ponytail exchanging smiles with a coworker as I smooth around my temples to tuck in loose frizz. Then I tell the iPad to start counting my $12 hours. Dodging my manager and the Dutch crunch roll on her spatula, I beeline towards the sink for some hot water, soap, and meticulous scrubbing—all 4 planes of each finger, hand, and wrist. I rinse then pat dry with paper towels, moving proximally from my fingertips—overkill for sandwich-making, but good practice.
I pull on a pair of gloves and slide into place at the toppings station, another cog in the sandwich making machine. The air is warm and thick with tantalizing smells, toasting bread and melting cheese, which fade to aromatic background noise in about 10 minutes. Between sandwiches, I wipe my bread knife with a rag dipped in sanitizing fluid. Someone orders a gluten-free sandwich, which calls for rigid, food allergy protocol. My manager takes full custody of the order with rewashed hands and fresh gloves. To avoid contamination, I give the gluten-free refrigerator a wide berth along with the special counter next to it where my manager assembles the sandwich alone with deliberate movements, brows furrowed above her glasses.
On the steps of the froyo shop next door, a coworker and I chat over cigarettes. Back in the sandwich shop, we gear up again with hairnets and aprons. I repeat my ablutions over the sink, pat my hands dry (starting at the most distal point), and pull on fresh gloves. I head towards the prep table in back and narrowly miss a puddle on the floor. My shabby Converse are saved from the disgrace of smelling like pickles for a week, and I am spared a talking to about the importance of regulation, non-slip shoes. On the prep table, in a metal bowl, is a whole chicken, recently boiled and still steaming. Steadying the round mass with one gloved hand, I poke and prod my fingers into the squishy flesh, systematically shredding every inch of the gray-white meat. Across the room, someone mops up the pickle puddle.
At 8pm, we close up shop. While we consolidate and saran wrap ingredient tubs, my manager entertains us with descriptions of the pornographic tattoos she hopes to add to her already extensive collection. After cheerful farewells, I retrace my steps back to the room I’m subletting. The sun’s disappearance has done surprisingly little to alleviate the stifling heat hanging in the air. I arrive home covered in sweat, sit on the concrete steps outside my room, and light a cigarette, admiring the view behind my building. In patches of streetlamp light, I can see asphalt webbed with cracks, the hint of chainlink beneath a tangle of morning glories, and a nearby house that I adore because it’s painted an eye-singeing shade of nuclear-waste green that never fails to amuse me. At 2am, I lie in bed, enveloped in the sweltering heat of my tiny, airless room, listening to the whir of a dilapidated fan.
The next morning is warm and bright, though the sun has only just poked its head out. I walk down the same cracked and uneven slope of sidewalk but on a shorter route to the UCLA hospital building. In pale blue scrubs, I could be an employee if not for the word “volunteer” on my badge. I walk with authority past the lobby’s empty chairs and take the internal elevators to the employees-only second floor. First a scrub jacket. I pull a clean one from a stack and slip on the informal uniform of surgical staff, trying not to explode with pride. Next, a hair cover. I slip it over my ponytail, exchanging smiles with a nurse as I smooth around my temples to tuck in loose frizz. Then I pull on a mask. Unwrapping a fresh sponge from sterile packaging, I beeline towards the sink for some hot water, soap, and meticulous scrubbing—all 4 planes of each finger, hand, and wrist. I rinse then pat dry with paper towels, moving proximally from my fingertips—overkill since I’m not scrubbing in, but good practice. Fluorescent light streams across the bone white linoleum as I enter the OR.
I may have risen before the sun, but the surgical team never went to bed and are already well into a heart transplant operation. The room is icy and thick with caustic odors, burning flesh and acrid chemicals, which fade to aromatic background noise in about 10 minutes. The raw meat charring and an open ice chest in the room evoke momentary barbecue associations that are disturbingly at odds with the rest of the hospital scene. The donor heart is already on sterile ice in a sterile basin on the sterile back table. To avoid contamination, I give the sterile field a wide berth by skirting around the center of the room. Leaning over the body cavity, my mentor cauterizes an incision with deliberate strokes, his brows furrowed above his safety goggles.
I pull on a pair of gloves and station myself in a corner, staying out of the way of two nurses who have more legitimate claim to this territory. A surgeon scrubbing in offers me the back of his sterile gown, and I tie the papery strings into a snug bow, double knotting for good measure. The surgical team removes the bunk heart and starts implanting the new one, painstakingly stitching donor blood vessels to the patient’s existing plumbing. For hours, my mentor labors over the body cavity, statue-like in his stillness, apart from the slight movements of his busy hands, until a resident scrubs in to relieve him. My mentor steps away from the body cavity and comes back to life as the mask of concentration lifts from his face allowing personality to flood back in. He glances around the room as though just waking from a dream and notices me for the first time, standing 15ft away. With his eyes and a jerk of his head, he signals me over to a different corner of the OR. I head for the rendezvous spot and narrowly miss a puddle on the floor — blood from a detached suction hose. My shabby Converse are saved from the perils of bodily fluids, and I am spared a talking to about the benefits of protective shoe-covers. A safe distance from the sterile field, my mentor stands next to a table. On the table, in a metal basin, is a human heart, recently extracted and still pink.
“Pretty cool huh?” His eyes are laughing above his mask.
I struggle to keep my composure, afraid my head might just pop off from the excitement fizzing through my body. He points to different chambers and blood vessels, quizzing me on anatomy and explaining visible signs of disease. Steadying the bloody mass with one gloved hand, I poke and prod my fingers into the supple organ, systematically investigating every inch of the still warm heart. Across the room, someone mops up the crimson puddle.
In the physician’s lounge across the hall, my mentor and I chat over cups of coffee. Back outside the OR, we gear up again with hair covers and masks. I repeat my ablutions over the sink, pat my hands dry (starting at the most distal point), and pull on fresh gloves. While they suture and staple the chest cavity shut, a nurse entertains us by showing off the tribal tattoo he just added to his already extensive collection.
At 8pm, I call it quits. My mentor’s scrubbed into a mitral valve repair, so I leave without formal farewells and retrace my steps back to the room I’m subletting. The night air feels like an oven set to defrost after so many bone-chilling surgical floor hours. I arrive home fully thawed, sit on the concrete steps outside my room and light my first cigarette of the day, deciding that the view is somehow even more spectacular than usual. The green house in particular is looking extra pleasantly radioactive this evening. At 2am, I lie in bed, enveloped in the sweltering heat of my tiny, airless room, listening to the whirr of a dilapidated fan.
About the Author
Corinne Hickey moved to San Francisco in 2019 to study web development and find a tech job. Disliking the startup lifestyle, she quit her job and spent the last year working as a freelance and contract writer. Working on creative assignments for clients inspired Corinne to try writing her own stories in a Creative Nonfiction Writing course at CCSF. Originally from Ventura County, Corinne graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She has a wide variety of interests and would like to continue trying out different careers throughout her life. Most of her free time is spent reading fiction, but in between books, Corinne also enjoys gardening, coding, portraiture, piñata-making, and other arts and crafts. Recently back from a trip to Thailand, she is currently couch surfing in the outer sunset and applying to software engineering positions.