Body Language


Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are deemed perfect, some defective. Some deemed beautiful, some ugly. Bodies are subject to invasion, injury, and illness. And they can produce marvelous things.

In her book I Knew a Woman, nurse practitioner Cortney Davis gives us various ways to look at the body.

The Exploratory …

“They hook the retractors over the edge of Eleanor’s open wound and pull. Suddenly the bowel pushes out of the incision, loops of pink cellophane.

The surgeons explore Eleanor’s organs. They trace the edge of her liver to make sure there’s no cancer studding it, hard clumps that feel like colored glass gems riveted to leather. They check the underside of her diaphragm to be sure there are no rough growths clinging like barnacles under a dock. They slide their fingers up her aorta to feel the long chain of lymph nodes next to it, like knots in a string. They pull the translucent bowel through their fingers the way a woman runs a wet sweater through her hands to strip the water without crushing the wool. Nothing. ‘Everything is clear,’ Emily says.” (page 208)

Inevitability …

“The smear on the slide dries quickly, branching into amniotic fluid’s characteristic fern pattern, like water on a windshield freezing into ice feathers before your eyes. Lila’s membranes are definitely ruptured. Now she’ll be admitted, her labor induced.

Something about this inevitability, the certainty of labor and delivery, appeals to me. It’s a process over which we have little control once it begins, so we’re relegated to the position of gatekeepers, standing by as labor proceeds. Of course, the doctors might argue that we can start and stop labor, we can intervene when there’s a problem, we can pluck out babies in distress, we can open the womb and sew it up again. We have bottles and tubes and oxygen under pressure, we have medicines to fight bacteria, and, if everything else fails, we have extreme means, the mystical machines that help one-pound babies breathe, the crash surgeries we pull off when a new mother’s blood won’t clot or her uterus turns itself inside out.

Having a baby is a natural process. We tell that to everyone, but I know how it can go wrong. Every time I send a mother upstairs to Labor and Delivery, every time a teenager looks at me and asks if everything’s going to be OK, I remember the times something unexpected happened. It’s a terrible habit, the imagination of disaster. One I have to break, I tell myself, as I go back to Lila’s room.” (page 203)

Vision …

“I’ve come to realize that when I look at a patient’s body, I inspect it with a kind of double vision. Of course I see the body as it is, but at the same time my eyes scan quickly, drawn only to the details that might signify trouble. Look here, my brain directs, now there, and there. It murmurs normal, normal, then suddenly the room flares as if a beam were directing me, pinpointing the spot where abnormal lurks. All the while, the patient and I continue our small talk. My hands move over her flesh as I picture the organs beneath with a focused, depersonalized stare. This way of looking is nothing like my usual eyesight. Although I never approach a patient expecting to find anything threatening, anything out of the ordinary, this special vision is reliable. Like a well-trained, silent sentinel, it appears only when needed, turning itself off and on automatically – although I’m sure this clinical gaze has taken me years to learn.” (page 223)

On the OR table …

“Eleanor was, just a vacant sleeping body. No, not sleeping – more like a body suspended, the essence of it taken away somewhere and a husk left behind. When confronted with only the body’s shell, the doctors and nurses and scrub techs can go to work. If the real body creeps back in or if the husk looks too alive, it’s almost impossible to make that first pass with the knife.” (page 213)

Body Beautiful …

“There was one thing, I realized, that joined us there in that room, the doctor, the nurse, the scrub tech, and me. We were all hungry to know the microcosm of the body, to solve its riddles and understand its intricacies. At various times, we had all rejoiced when the body’s hidden parts had willingly revealed themselves. There was the tortuous ear canal we could peer into with our little lights, and the body’s hallways, vagina and throat and long sinuous vessels we could navigate with shiny steel instruments and flexible catheters. … And there was the skin, which guarded its contents fiercely yet, when necessary, yielded easily to the knife. I love the body, I thought from deep in my foresty shelter, even when it betrays us. I remembered the many courageous patients I’d known during my years in health care and the many unforgettable moments I’d experienced, moments of horror or astonishing acts of love: holding a man’s heart in my hand during surgery … the psychotic woman who ran out of the intensive care unit with a mattress strapped to her back; the burned boy whose polyester pants had melted to his legs; the physician who stood in Labor and Delivery, rocking and singing, cradling a dying premature boy in his arms because the parents were too shocked to do so; the dying man who escaped from the hospital to run naked in the snow for the last time … the man on the ventilator who, when he awakened, told me that he’d heard everything I said to him night after night, that I was the one who had kept him holding on to life.” (pages 71-72)

The above excerpts are from the book: I Knew a Woman: The Experience of the Female Body by Cortney Davis, © 2001 by Cortney Davis. Published by Random House, an imprint of Random House, Inc.