Breathing for Two by Wolf Pascoe @WolfPascoe

Posted on Tuesday, November 19, 2013


WHEN I WAS in medical school, I heard about a curious malady called Ondine's curse. It was a breathing disorder, and the professor had casually mentioned it during a lecture on the mechanics of breathing—an afterthought, more or less.

“Who was Ondine?” someone asked.

The professor didn't know.

Who coined the name?

It was an anesthesiologist who had observed it in patients with injuries to the respiratory center—the part of the brain that controls breathing.

“What's the cure?” someone else said.

“There isn't one.”

You hear about many disorders when you’re in medical school, of course. Some you think about a lot. Some you even begin to think you have, but usually you get over it.

Ondine's curse is this: during sleep, the body forgets to breathe.

Ondine was a water nymph who fell in love with a man. It's dangerous business for a nymph to get involved with a mortal, for if she has a child by him she loses her immortality. This happened to Ondine, who was content with her fate until she discovered her husband sleeping with another woman.

Ondine woke her unlucky spouse with her curse: You promised faithfulness with every breath. Let it be done. Should you ever fall asleep again, you shall not breathe.

Was ever revenge more poetically correct?

Fortunately, permanent ruin of the respiratory center is rare. I don't have Ondine's curse, and neither do you, probably, if you're reading this. On the other hand, I encounter a temporary form of Ondine's curse every day in surgery, where, as an anesthesiologist, I must routinely interrupt normal breathing in order to make surgery possible. An anesthesiologist, you might say, is the Ondine of the operating room.

Let me set the scene.

You’re an observer in a modern OR. Even though there are no windows, you know the sun hasn't yet risen. A middle-aged woman lies awake on the table.

A nondescript but intense man in scrubs speaks intimately into her ear. The man isn’t acting as you imagine a surgeon would—he seems oblivious to the surgical paraphernalia in the room.

You see the man remove an empty syringe from an injection port and flick the intravenous line with the back of his hand. The woman's eyes flutter and close. One hand, with which she'd been tapping a sort of rhythm on her thigh, goes limp. Her chest stops rising and falling.

One moment the woman was there, and now she's gone. You're not sure, exactly, what has just happened.

The nurses pay no attention, either to the woman or the man. Nothing noteworthy here, they seem to say. They go about their business, talking quietly, wheeling trays around, opening packs of instruments.

The man lifts a strange, plastic cone off the woman's face—when did it get there? He pivots and retrieves a bizarre flashlight from an adjacent cart, and begins looking in the woman's mouth. You notice the gas machine at the man's side, a cascade of glass columns, porcelain knobs and metal conduits too complex to fathom. The machine makes a rushing sound and the woman's chest rises and falls.

The machine is breathing for her.

The man tapes the woman's eyes closed, picks up the chart, and starts writing. The woman is inert, insensible. Her transformation into surgical tissue has taken less than a minute.


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Genre – Non-fiction / Memoir

Rating – G

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