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I Think She Is Dead

“I’ve got a young woman on the back seat of my car, and I think she’s dead!” Gasped the young man.

I was the only doctor on duty at the country hospital in Warburton, Victoria, on what was to be an eventful Friday morning in the 50s.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “The neighbours . . . They just recently got married. This morning her husband went off to work as usual and my wife, who likes to be a good neighbour, went to see how she was getting on . . . And found her collapsed on the floor. This is the nearest hospital, so I put her in the car. I’ve driven more than 100 kilometres of winding bush track to get her here.”

I lost no time in getting to his vehicle. There, crumpled on the back seat, was the still form of a young woman. Her skin was cold and white. I couldn’t detect a pulse, but I could discern a feeble heartbeat. She was alive, but only just.

Immediately we lifted her onto a stretcher and carried her into the hospital. Now I was confronted with a real problem: I had a patient in extreme shock, on the brink of death, but had no information as to what might have caused her condition.

Quickly I examined her.

“Her abdomen is distended with fluid,” I said to Matron Mitchell. “I think it’s blood. It looks as though we have an ectopic on our hands.”

This condition–a rupture of major blood vessels in the pelvis–necessitates immediate surgery. We commenced intravenous therapy with serum, then phoned Melbourne with a request that more blood to be rushed the 70 kilometres to the hospital by taxi. The staff prepared the operating theatre for emergency surgery.

We need an anaesthetist

Our problem now was the anaesthetic. I was the only doctor at the hospital and because the woman’s condition was so critical, we desperately needed a specialist anaesthetist. In those days of ether anaesthesia, most anaesthetics were given by general practitioners. There were very few specialists.

Matron Mitchell had a little experience in giving anaesthetics. So, because no doctor was available, I turned to her.

“I will have to ask you to give the anaesthetic,” I said. “We have to operate now, or it will be too late. But if she dies on the operating table, you will be called before a court. But I will go with you.”

I retreated and prayed

As the staff continued to prepare the theatre and the patient, I retreated into my office and prayed.

“Lord,” I said, “this is an emergency. A woman’s life is at stake. I desperately need a specialist in anaesthetics. But I know that no such specialist is available. . . . I won’t describe the problem; You know all about it.”

“I’ll commence the anaesthetic,” I told Matron Mitchell. “Then I’ll hand it over to you while I scrub up and operate.”

I was about to commence administering the anaesthetic, when the door to theatre opened. A man, a complete stranger to me, put his head around the corner.

“Hello. I’m Dr Smith. Can I be of any help?”

Well, he could, but first it was crucial to know whether he was a PhD, a doctor of music, a skin specialist or a psychiatrist.

“What line of work do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a specialist in anaesthesia, from Royal Melbourne,” he replied.

I explained the situation and he took over the anaesthetic.

It took all the skill he had to keep the woman alive while I operated. I opened her abdomen to find it absolutely distended with blood. Not before nor since have I seen such a haemorrhage.

The electric suction device I was using couldn’t cope with the volume of blood. I cupped my hands together and baled out her abdomen as you might bale a canoe. I finished off with the electric suction.

Once the abdomen was clear I found the problem. A ruptured artery and still feebly pulsing blood. As I tied it off, I knew she would live.

I can’t explain it

Once the woman was taken to the recovery room, I turned to Dr Smith. I’d hardly had a moment to think about it till then.

“How on earth did you come to appear at the door of the theatre when you did?” I asked him.

“I can’t explain it,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what happened. As you know, there are very few specialist anaesthetists about, so I’ve been working long hours. This morning, I turned up at the hospital to do a list of anaesthetics only to be told–and without explanation–that the whole list had been cancelled.

“I thought, How wonderful! I’m going to get right away from Melbourne for the weekend. I want to go somewhere where nobody knows me, where there are no hospitals, no operating theatres and no anaesthetics.

“And then,” he said, “I had an impulse that I should go to Warburton. That I can’t explain. But I decided I would go. I’d never been here before, but I knew there were numerous guesthouses where I could spend the weekend.

“Well, as I drove into Warburton I noticed a large building high on the slopes of a hill. That looks like a nice guest house, I said to myself. So I drove on up. Obviously it was your hospital, but just as I was about to turn around and drive off a young woman came out of the gates.

You’re wanted at once

“My name is Dr Smith,” I told her, “and I am looking for a place where I can spend the weekend.

“She grabbed me. ‘You’re wanted in the operating theatre. At once!'” she said.

“I came to Warburton to get away from operating theatres,” I replied.

“But it’s an emergency!” She persisted.

“And that,” continued Dr Smith, “is how I came to be here.”

“Can you tell me,” I asked, “just what time the impulse that you should come to Warburton came to you?”

“Yes,” he replied. “It was just on 10 past eight this morning.”

The sequence of events began to unfold in my mind. At eight o’clock the woman had collapsed at Matlock, 110 kilometres east of Warburton. God knew she would be brought to Warburton. He knew I would need an anaesthetist. Hence, at 8.10 He had put into the mind of that anaesthetist, 70 kilometres to the west, that he must go to there.

While the problem was coming from the east, the solution was coming from the west. I knew nothing about it, until they each arrived.

At about 10.30 that morning I was pleading with God for help–but He had already supplied the solution to my prayer some two hours earlier.

Dr. Calvin Palmer.