My first third-year clerkship was surgery and I was immediately enthralled with the pre-surgical scrubbing, gowning, and gloving. To me, surgery’s ritualized cleaning, particular posture to maintain sterile field, and well-practiced-yet-improvised movements of surgical cuts and sutures were reminiscent of dance. There was this sense of control that exuded from this ‘choreography’ of cleaning, cutting, and making whole what was once broken. I shared this thought with an attending who replied, “There is only so much that one can control in an OR. Sometimes, the patients have a mind of their own. Sometimes, our experience does not prepare us for the unpredictable. There is always a ‘first patient’ for every surgeon and that patient changes their entire understanding of the meaning of surgery.”
Sati’s Surgery explores the struggle between control and unpredictability in an operation by juxtaposing it against the story of Sati, a goddess from Indian mythology. Sati is a perfectionist and the pious wife of the God Shiva. She performs her morning rituals with dedication—cleaning herself, cooking the food to maintain purity, praying in a particular manner, and meditating deeply. One day, a messenger from her father arrives and tells her of a grand ceremony her father is performing. She becomes excited as she has not seen her father since her marriage. She asks if she can come and bring her husband. The messenger laughs viciously and says, “You married Shiva, a God who is dirty, impure, and unclean. You defied your father and now—you are no longer welcome home”. Sati is distraught. She asks Shiva, her husband, to come with her to see her father. Shiva also refuses and says, “You should not go either. You are my wife now and you cannot return home.”
Sati is betrayed by the people closest to her. Behind her, the surgeon faces a suddenly unstable patient. Despite the rituals of constant practice, methodical cleansing, and creative maneuvers, both Sati and Surgeon realize that sometimes, the outcomes of surgery and life are beyond one’s control. Understanding this reality teaches us the power of humility, empathy, and resilience in our own life paths as women in surgery.
Music Mixed by Emily Stangle
Music: “Kamakshi” by Susheela Raman
“Mridangam solo” by Trichy Sankaran
Choreography: Rohini Bhatia and Shilpa Darivemula
Video Editing: Anish G and Shilpa Darivemula
Special thanks to the Albany Med Patient Safety and Clinical Competency Center (PSCCC) for allowing us to use the Operating Theater and for videotaping the scenes above. Thank you to Anish for videotaping the dance.