“All rise!” The Court Clerk brayed in a tone of bored authority. The words echoed and then died against the wooden paneling.
There was a pause. The door to the left opened. A short bobbing woman entered robed and wigged even though convention didn’t demand it anymore. The pause followed her and held its breath.
There was a scraping and shuffling as lawyers, defendants, witnesses and audience rose. And bowed their heads. The judge sat down, her head hovering over the bench above. She feathered her hand at the crowd. With a more respectful scraping and shuffling now, all resumed our seats.
“Even to its practitioners, there are things about anaesthesia that remain a mystery – such as – where exactly it fits in the spectrum of consciousness.”
Thirty seconds in and he was already uncomfortable. He started to shake his head slowly from side to side. His hands were no where to be seen. Like children of a past generation, he was seen and not heard. Short, shorter than the judge by a half head, he bowed his head over the stand in boredom. All that could be seen was a brown shiny bald patch circled by a patch of hair. In another life, he would be bowed over a pew at prayer, held to a vow of silence.
“A state of general anaesthetia is not rendered not by a single drug but by a lights-out cocktail.”
“We don’t care for such pseudo-academic twaddle,” the anaesthetist growled.
“We put people under, hold them under and then bring them back. It’s a simple occupation really. You’re making it far too complicated.”
Unbidden, unusual and unhelpful even if he was being tasked with giving expert testimony. Which in fact he wasn’t. Especially considering this was a coronial inquest.
“Yes, they’re all a secret society, even when I put them on the stand as expert witnesses,” thought the cross examining lawyer in exasperation. But he set aside those thoughts as well as the academic treatise he was reading. Unlike his interlocutor, the lawyer was grey of hair and of skin too, tall and spare with an economy of movement that belied his age. Only the twisted folds of skin under his chin marked him as ten years later than he looked.
“What about accidental awareness?” his soft voice filled the courtroom.
The anaesthetist stirred. His face peered over the edge of the witness box, red cheeks, centred by the pasty nose of the heavy drinker or worse topped by two monstrous eyebrows.
“It happens,” he said impatiently. “But you make it far more serious than the situation warrants. We monitor the patient closely. We take the action required. Like I said, yesterday,” he drawled with emphasis,”we’re not surgeons. More like farmers,” his tight mouth fluttering at his joke,”drenching sheep. It’s really straightforward, nothing to worry about.”
His voice now which was a dull monotone, more suited to calling out blood pressure, respiration, pulse and blood gases now was a bellow.
“Yes I can see why now. How all those nurses and junior doctors complained. Yes I can see too why he kept being exonerated, without even a reprimand, all those complaints dismissed as mere professional differences rather than personal ones. Sheep dip indeed.”
The anaesthetist didn’t react to the lawyer’s unspoken thoughts. Had they been spoken, his clever counsel would have interjected anyway and dismissed them as irrelevant. But clearly too, he hadn’t been fully briefed.
“What if there’s a incident?”, the cross examination continued.
“We’ve procedures in place. Should it happen,” he said gruffly.
“Thank you for your testimony,” the lawyer concluded. The anaesthetist shrugged, relaxed and almost smiled as he stretched back in his chair waiting for the judge to discharge him.
The silence at first inviting and expectant, continued. For the lawyer was still standing.
The lawyer paused and continued,”Your testimony regarding the science of anaesthetisia.”
Then he intoned, “Now I want to walk you through the incident at hand, the incident that happened on the 28th December, the night of the emergency.”
“What?” He growled. The eyebrows fluttered in time with his silent mouth as he sought his lawyer. But she crossed her legs and folded her arms. And avoided his eye.
“I answered that fully and frankly in my statement tendered to the court.”
“Yes he is his own lawyer! And his counsel knows it!! He’s had enough experience too!” the cross examiner nearly laughed to himself. But his task now required complete absence of all expression: the perfect listener!
“Indeed that is perfectly true,” the lawyer countered. “But the court wishes to hear your story in your own words for the record.”
“It’s all in my statement. There’s nothing to tell. I anaesthetised a patient that died during the subsequent surgery.” Another lost look at the defence lawyer.
“You knew she was dying.”
“No. Her vital signs were all falling. BP dropping, pulse down,breathing shallow, blunt trauma and she had lost a lot of blood.”
“That’s correct and that’s in accordance with the medical records tendered. However, according to Accident and Emergency, she had been stabilised, prepped and ready for surgery.”
“No, not from where I stand.” Came the reply.
“She had deteriorated before you administered the first part of the anaesthetic,” the lawyer continued.
Then the lawyer stood and unwound himself to his full height.
“Why didn’t you call it? Why didn’t you at that stage abort the operation?”
“Why did you administer the second part of the anaesthetic?”
“I put it to you that without authorisation you carried out an act of involuntary euthanasia on a dying patient.”
“Just like drenching human sheep,” came the reply.