by E. B. Fischadler
Keeping a painful secret is difficult for anybody. When that secret includes a bizarre origin, rejection by one’s creator and several deaths, it is much harder. Victor Frenchstone had such a secret, which he kept for nearly two hundred years, keeping his distance from all of humanity yet longing to be accepted.
One might assume that Victor Frenchstone’s pursuit of a career in medicine was a result of that need for acceptance. In fact, Frenchstone resolved to become a plastic surgeon after learning of the suffering of children deformed by war. More than anyone, he could sympathize with those victims who suffered emotional distress and rejection because of their deforming injuries.
Frenchstone himself was a giant of a man, with many scars and deformities. His appearance was not the result of war but due to the limited surgical skill and experience of his creator, Victor Frankenstein.
Of all the children Victor Frenchstone helped overcome the wounds of war, one was now seeking a career in the medical profession himself. That child was now a young man interviewing for a prestigious residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Dressed in suit and tie, Rajendra sat at a large table in a well-appointed conference room. Opposite him sat three dignified men in their fifties. Many young men would be intimidated in such a situation, but Rajendra felt quite at home.
Years earlier, he had spent months at Massachusetts General receiving one of a very few successful double hand transplants. During that time, he had encountered each of these leaders in their field as their patient. Now he sat before them, seeking to become their colleague.
Rajendra easily navigated the formalities, telling the panel about his upbringing, outlining his academic career and describing his internship. He answered the preliminary questions of the three senior surgeons who were interviewing him for a spot in their residency program.
Then one of the surgeons said, “Tell us about someone who’s influenced your path here.”
Rajendra shed his jacket, unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and rolled up the sleeves to reveal scars that went completely around his wrists.
“As you know,” he said, “my hands were blown off in a terrorist attack in my native Pakistan. I was brought to Boston, and received the gift of new hands thanks to a highly skilled team of surgeons, physicians and nurses at this very institution. What could have been a devastating tragedy turned into a journey, culminating in this meeting.”
The three surgeons nodded, glancing at one another. “So the surgeons who gave you your new hands were the inspiration for your career path.”
“No, what led me to pursue surgery was the knowledge that many, I should say most, of the children I knew and thousands of others will need the skills of dedicated surgeons to heal the wounds of war.”
Rajendra held up his arms, presenting the scars encircling his wrists to the panel before him. “When I lost my hands, I was aware of medicine only to the limited extent that it was practiced in my small village.
“With no way of knowing how advanced the art and science of medicine were in the West, my parents thought mere survival was the best I could hope for. They assumed that I would forever be dependent on others for even the simplest tasks: feeding myself, dressing, everything. Then I came to America, to this hospital.
“Once I received my new hands, I was inspired to pursue medicine. I knew I was called to help others as I had been helped. Whenever I mentioned this dream to anyone, they assumed that I would find a specialty that did not require extensive use of my hands, or where I could work through the hands of a surrogate. Surgery never entered the discussion.”
One of the panel asked, “Why not some other specialty? Why choose a field which requires a high degree of dexterity?”
Rajendra answered, “Because surgeons repair the injuries that children suffer. Allergists don’t work in war zones, radiologists diagnose, but don’t heal. And, to be honest, I never trusted the psychiatrists who at first said I could do anything I wanted. How could I believe that when my new hands were so clumsy, when even the simplest task eluded me? They said I could, but didn’t show me how. The surgeon’s role is clear, the healing they do tangible, and I have personally experienced the miracles they work.
“My new hands were extremely awkward at first. I had to develop new neural connections, teach my brain how to command the hands, teach the hands how to understand this unfamiliar nervous system. I spent years in occupational therapy. Small tasks were major challenges. At first, we celebrated the accomplishment of trivial tasks like picking up a glass of water.
“Like many patients in OT, I reached plateaus. One came after I developed the skill of picking up a pencil. Another when I was able to scrawl out my name in barely legible letters. The longest and worst came when I could do a few basic skills, but such ordinary things as buttoning my shirt, tying my shoes and buckling my belt eluded me.
“I began to think I never could achieve my desire of becoming a surgeon. But one man changed all that. He’s the influence I’d like to tell you about.”
The three men across the table shifted in their seats. Rajendra gave them a moment to allow what he said to sink in.
He went on. “Immediately after the transplant, my hands were swollen and discolored. I was told that was normal, and the swelling and discoloration would resolve in time. As you can see, they haven’t completely gone away. How could these hands, so clumsy, so misshapen, perform delicate surgery? I’d like to show you something.”
Rajendra lifted a briefcase onto the table, opened it and reached inside. He brought out a plastic box, opened it and set it on the table. The box contained several fishing flies.
“I brought these thinking to impress upon you that my new hands are capable of fine work.”
Dr. Krupnick was particularly taken. He picked up a bright red and green fly just under a half inch in size. “Royal Wulff, size twelve—“
“Actually, that’s a fourteen.” Rajendra pointed out that the fly was smaller than Krupnick had estimated.
“Elk Hair caddis, some nymphs.” Krupnick pointed to some flies about three-sixteenths of an inch long. “Are these midges size twenty?”
“They are beautiful, nicely tied. Did you tie these?”
“I did. Since you are obviously a fly fisher, you can appreciate the dexterity required to create these flies. Do you tie?”
“I must admit, I’m hopeless with anything smaller than a fourteen.”
“So you can understand that I have acquired significant dexterity with these new hands.”
“Yes, quite so.” Dr. Krupnik turned to the other panelists and said, “These represent a high level of skill. This candidate has a surgeon’s hands.”
“A skill given me by a remarkable man, the greatest influence on my career.”
“Yes, go on.”
“During my recovery, my therapist would sometimes take me out of the city in hopes that the countryside would cheer me. Being confined to a ward in the hospital is very hard for a child.
“On one such trip, we went to her home town, Groton, about an hour north of Boston. It has a charming center. She took me to an orchard there, situated on three rolling hills with a spectacular view all the way into New Hampshire.
“Then she took me to a river, I think it was called the Nissitissett. There, we encountered a large man standing in midstream, fly fishing. I was surprised when she recognized him. ‘Rajendra, that’s Doctor Frenchstone. He’s a highly respected plastic surgeon, and I believe he’s been to your country.’”
“Ah, Frenchstone,” said the panelist to Krupnick’s left. “He’s done quite a lot for the children caught up in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Very inspiring.”
“She called to the man, and he came over to us. We were introduced, and he said to me in my own language, ‘Yes, I’ve heard of you. I’m honored to meet you.’ When he took my hand to shake it, I realized he had the biggest hands I’d ever seen.
“The next week, when I went to my occupational therapy session, Dr. Frenchstone was there.
“My therapist said, ‘Rajendra, I thought you might like to learn fly tying. After we met him on the stream, I asked Dr. Frenchstone if he knew someone who could instruct you, and he offered to teach you himself.’”
“So Frenchstone inspired you by teaching you to tie flies?”
“Not just by teaching me fly tying. We did spend quite a bit of time together, and I must say he was extraordinarily patient with me. At the first session, I could barely pick up the large size six hooks we used to tie wooly buggers. It took four sessions for me to complete my first fly.”
With that, Rajendra lifted a ragged looking fly, about two inches long, from the box. “But he got me through it. I never dreamed I could tie this.” Rajendra set the fly down on the table.
“He wisely started me with a large simple fly. In time, we worked down in size to fourteens, sixteens and eventually the size 22 you remarked on. All this time I was watching those misshapen hands, so much larger than mine, weave thread, fur and feathers into delicate flies like these. He showed me that my swollen, clumsy hands were capable of delicate work.”
“That’s a very nice story. Thank you.”
“Ah, but do you want to hear how he convinced me I could do surgery?”
“Yes. Tying several flies over the span of several months, we also got to know a bit about each other. Dr. Frenchstone learned I wanted to be a surgeon and encouraged me greatly. But his greatest encouragement was by example, not by words he said.
“At one point in our lessons, I was having particular difficulty with a whip finish. This is the knot sailors tie around the ends of ropes to prevent fraying. In fly tying, this is the knot that finishes off the fly.
“After I struggled with the knot for a few minutes, Dr. Frenchstone came around to my side of the table to guide me. As we were tying the knot together, his sleeves slid down to his elbows. Gentlemen, do you know that Dr. Frenchstone, plastic surgeon, has scars just like mine completely encircling both forearms?”
The panelists shifted in their seats, shooting puzzled looks at one another.
“I was stunned by the sight and stopped what I was doing. Dr. Frenchstone noticed and moved around to his side of the table. If any of you have ever worked with Dr. Frenchstone, you know that he is an eloquent speaker, never at a loss for words.”
“He seemed dumbstruck. Dr. Frenchstone sat there for several minutes, staring at the scars on his arms, almost as if he had never seen them before.
“He rested his elbows on the table, arms up, scars right in front of me. He looked from the scars to me, again at the scars, then his eyes met mine. I could see he was struggling. For a moment, he shook. His eyes were moist. He started to say something, then caught himself.”
“Never knew Frenchstone to be anything but upbeat. Whatever could have troubled him so?” asked Dr. Krupnick.
“All he said to me was ‘If I can do this, you can do it.’”
Copyright © 2016 by E. B. Fischadler