Tears in the operating room are different from tears cried by civilians, by veals. There are rules.
A single tear from one eye is unobjectionable. Two tears, either one from each eye or two from one eye are permitted if they are unaccompanied by sniffles. Three tears risks discovery and humiliation. There are rules.
The mechanics of crying in the OR are difficult. You may not brush a tear away. Sterile and dirty may not touch. Gloved sterile hands may not swipe unsterile eyes. Best to let your tear take a quick dive into your blue pleated mask which will blot it up before it can drop into the sleeping patient’s incision. There are rules.
You can sneak peanut M&Ms one by one at decent intervals under your mask, but you cannot touch your face just a little higher up to flick away a tear when a child’s severed leg thunks into the stainless steel basin. There are rules.
Eyes can be red but not too red, wet but not too wet. Many in the OR are sleep-deprived, and a few are hung over, so you will blend in. Some eyes blink rapidly, chasing an errant eyelash or contact lens, tearing up and reddening. You could be one of those. It is not permitted to rub dirty eyes with sterile hands to prevent a snail trail of tears sneaking down cheek and over mask. There are rules.
OR tears are different from veal tears, civilian tears. They burn. They track fire down unprotected cheeks, leaving a faint trace of light umber against the sky blue mask, disturbing the pressed-down fibers and making fuzz as they go. The color is from the anesthesia in the air, seeping out from around the mask and the tube. It does burn, and there are rules.
Although others can tell you’ve been shedding tears, if you follow the rules they will not mention your shame. If you break the rules, others can be mean. You may acquire a nickname.
Poem (sans original formatting) by Anne Vinsel who works at a large academic medical center. Previously published in Pulse.