Essay: Killing Me Softly
By S.W. Gordon
Serial killers often begin their careers mutilating animals––so do many surgeons. My first kill came at the age of four. While trying to teach our wire-haired fox terrier to be friends with our gerbil, I held the little rodent upside down by the tail above the dog’s snapping jaws. I had chained the dog to a pole with a leash, but the damn dog tricked me by backing up and luring me into his lunging range. In a flash his teeth clamped down on the gray fur and I let go. It was over in an instant. One quick shake of his head and that gerbil was gone. When the dog dropped it, he looked up at me as if to say, “Next.”
My mother kept me away from our animals after that incident but it didn’t stop me. The first time was an act of commission; the second time was an act of omission. It was Christmas Eve and we were heading over to Granny’s house through a light and drifting snow. I was ten by then, and on the way out of the house, I forgot to close the door to the laundry room, where our four guinea pigs lived in large, wire cages. The dog must have thought Santa had come early.
When we returned home later that night, I heard my older sister scream, “The dog got the guinea pigs!” I tried to see the carnage but was hustled upstairs. After my parents cleaned up the mess, I learned that Star Pig was the only survivor and that Ring-Around-The-Collar’s head was missing, presumably eaten.
Later that night, while crawling into bed, I put my hand on something cold and wet. I ran out of my room so fast that I didn’t get a good look except to notice a circle of blood soaked into the blanket around the dark thing I’d touched. So it turned out Ring’s head hadn’t been eaten after all. I wouldn’t sleep in my room for weeks, and to this day I haven’t seen The Godfather. Often I wondered if Star Pig suffered any psychological trauma from witnessing the murder of his parents, Charlie and Charlotte, and the decapitation of his sister. Unlike me, he never seemed too bothered by the whole ordeal and lived to a ripe old age before dying in my hands—of natural causes.
In high school there was only one incident. My best friend and I were driving down the highway one evening in my piece-of-shit Ford Fiesta when a big-ass twelve-point buck skittered out onto the asphalt and slammed into us. The car decelerated instantly with the sudden impact. We heard a double thump and saw a large, brown animal bounce off into the ditch on the other side of the road. I thought I’d hit a large dog, but my friend thought he saw antlers. The radiator was busted and steam rose from the crumpled hood into the cold night air. Surprisingly, the car never stopped running, so we wobbled off to the side of the road and waited for the police.
When Officer Piddlecow arrived, I figured he’d pull my driver’s license and send me to Traffic School. “Don’t worry, son,” he said, leaning into my window. “This here was an act of God. You’re not in any trouble.” His squad car was parked on the opposite side of the highway next to the dead deer. The flashers on the roof lit up the night in alternating blue and white strobe lights.
“What you boys plan to do with the deer?” he asked. I was so relieved not to be in trouble that I hadn’t thought about the poor beast. “If y’all don’t want it, I’ll take care of it.”
“Sure, Officer.” I had no idea I was giving away 250 lbs of prime venison and a rack worthy of a wall-mount.
“Well then, come give me a hand.” He motioned us to follow.
We flanked him across the road and stood above the motionless carcass. It was huge. “Okay, help me pull it out of the ditch,” he said. My buddy and I each grabbed a back leg and hauled the animal behind the squad car. “Now prop it on the car.” The deer was still limber, and its head flopped around as the three of us lifted it onto the trunk, exposing its white belly.
“Hold him steady,” the officer said. He whipped out a large Bowie knife and slit the deer’s belly wide open with an upward thrust from the crotch all the way to the sternum. The intestines poured out of the wound, and blood sloshed onto our shoes. Passing cars slowed down to gawk at the horrific scene. He set the bloody knife on the bumper, reached in with his bare hands all the way to his elbows, and ripped out the guts, which he unceremoniously tossed into the weeds.
I could see steam rising from the pile of offal and wondered about the legality of dumping deer entrails along the roadside within city limits. The officer must have sensed my concern and said, “Don’t worry, the crows and other scavengers will clean up anything we leave behind.” How convenient was that? Once again my mess was left for others.
When I arrived at college, that’s when my killing spree really took off. I spent my first summer working in a neurology lab experimenting on white rats. My younger sister had several pet rats, so I was quite comfortable handling them. As a result I was assigned the task of selecting the victims from the animal care facility and anesthetizing the rats. I also learned how to perform several operations and how to euthanize the unlucky rats after the experiment ended. A simple overdose of anesthetic would put the subject out of its misery, then I’d wrap it in a plastic bag and throw it in the freezer. After several weeks I’d empty the frozen rat-sickles into a tall kitchen garbage bag and take them down to the incinerator.
The next summer I took Parasitology, and we learned how to torture and kill bullfrogs and mice after infecting them with various parasites. What could be more fun? I loved that class. And for the record, it’s easier to pith a frog with a sharp probe jabbed into the brainstem than to suffocate it in a jar filled with dry ice. To kill an anesthetized mouse, just hold down its neck with two fingers and give the tail a quick upward jerk to separate the spinal cord. When done correctly, you’ll feel the snap, the paws will all curl, and the animal will shudder before going completely limp.
By the time I started medical school, I’d lost count of my victims. The body count had to be in the hundreds. So when I met my cadaver in Gross Anatomy, it was no big deal. Though I couldn’t take the credit for killing the woman, I did skin her, saw off her skull cap, remove all her organs, and cut her into sections. It was a complete and utter dismemberment. I enjoyed it so much, I became a prosector the next year in order to perform the most difficult dissections.
I was rather proud of my lack of squeamishness. My father once took me into the morgue when I was very young to show me an autopsy in progress. The dead man’s nudity bothered me more than the huge, curved needle and thick, black stitch closing up his chest cavity. Years later I had no qualms about visiting the cadaver lab in the dead of night, all by myself, to learn in peace and quiet, alone in a room with over one hundred dead bodies in various states of disassembly. In fact, it was rather exhilarating. Admittedly, I couldn’t eat ribs or chicken wings after these sessions but only because my fingers smelled strongly of formaldehyde.
Later in medical school I had access to a VA dog lab during the summer after my first year and again during my third-year surgical rotation. As a dog lover, I would have preferred practicing on cats, but I didn’t have a choice. The dogs were only allowed to have three surgeries before being euthanized. I learned to put in chest tubes, perform venous cutdowns, and do emergency tracheostomies. As a student, I only maimed the dogs; the techs did all the actual killing. I suspect they had a pretty big freezer.
After three years of medical school, I took a one-year fellowship in a urology lab experimenting on rats. This was a prolific year, and I suspect I doubled the body count. While the neurology experiments were performed on one rat at a time, the urology experiments utilized sets of twenty to thirty rats. When I started the job, I inherited a bunch of poorly documented protocols that killed the rats before any of the actual experiments could be finished. Hundreds of rats and a handful of mice were sacrificed while I reinvented the wheel. By the end of the year, nothing meaningful had been accomplished, and the only scientific discovery I made was that our animal model was inherently flawed.
You would think that once I started my residency, the opportunities for killing animals would be few and far between—but you’d be wrong. Rats have really big balls and make excellent subjects for learning to perform reverse vasectomies using an operative microscope. And pigs lack intraperitoneal fat, which makes them wonderful subjects for learning laparoscopic surgical techniques. I also ventured into the morgue late one night to perform my first radical retropubic prostatectomy on a dead guy. One of the Urology professors needed a whole prostate for cancer research, and I jumped at the opportunity. Another time I got to scrub in on an organ harvest. That was rather extreme. Removing a donor’s heart and lungs is instant death.
I never had the opportunity to perform an abortion during my training, but I suppose I would have relished the chance to prove myself immune to yet another moral prohibition. For some reason I thought that was an essential prerequisite to becoming a surgeon. Historically the great anatomists employed grave robbers to supply fresh cadavers to help advance the science of medicine. Had I been swept up in this same paradigm? According to Nietzsche, if I survived these ethical transgressions, would I not grow stronger?
One of my Urology professors, who was the son of an Episcopal minister, seemed to be aware of my dilemma. Perhaps he recognized my incessant desire to prove myself regardless of the cost. He gave me a copy of Robert Jay Lifton’s book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. At the time I was baffled as to why he insisted I read this book.
I have now been practicing medicine for over two decades, and I know what you’re thinking. Have I killed any of my patients? Well, not on purpose, of course, but shit happens. For the record, I’ve never had a patient die on the operating table; however, post-op complications have led, on rare occasions, to a celestial discharge. It’s also rather humbling to have performed a timely, complication-free surgery only to have cancer reoccur and kill the patient you thought you’d saved.
Twice now I’ve had to put down beloved family dogs, and it tore me up inside. And despite John Irving’s convincing argument for abortion in The Cider House Rules, I know I could not perform an abortion on a healthy fetus. It would break what’s left of my jaded heart.
Intellectually I realize that all my patients will eventually die, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Still, I try to assuage their pain and prolong their life for as long as possible. Every week or so I receive a message that another patient has expired. It’s a constant reminder of the inevitability of death. So has a lifetime of killing and death thickened my skin and destroyed my empathy? Do I take it personally when a patient suffers and dies despite my best efforts?
You have no fucking idea…
S.W. Gordon has a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MFA in creative writing from Stetson University, as well as an MD. He is a practicing urologic surgeon in Florida, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He has studied with Mark Powell, Angie Cruz, and Chantel Acevedo, and has attended numerous writing workshops and conferences, including the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, the Kurt Vonnegut Symposium, the Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop, Other Words Literary Conference, Pat Conroy Literary Conference, and AWP. When not writing or practicing medicine, he enjoys fishing, fantasy football, and Basenjis.