In more than 25 years of working in trauma medicine and emergency rooms, Dr. Frank Huyler, 55, has seen gunshot wounds, Iraq War veterans with PTSD, bank robbers, addicts, animal attacks, murder victims, a woman who inserted a sewing needle into her own heart, and a patient who lied about being a rock star from the ’80s in order to get better treatment. But what stays with Huyler most are the small, touching moments with his patients.
Once, Huyler treated a woman with dwarfism who had been drinking and dancing on top of a bar when she fell. Badly injured, she came into the ER unconscious and had to be intubated. After Huyler saved her life, he imagined living with her condition and pictured the scene of her accident with a glimmer of hope.
“I imagine her joy, when the crowd is smiling with her rather than against her, and cheering her on,” he writes.
Huyler chronicles this and other first-hand experiences as an ER doctor at the University of New Mexico Medical Center in his new memoir “White Hot Light: Twenty-Five Years in Emergency Medicine” (Harper Perennial), a follow-up to his 1999 bestselling memoir “The Blood of Strangers.” His new title is a reference to the omnipresent, blinding lights of the operating table.
Huyler has witnessed hundreds of people come into his emergency room with cancer and other terminal illnesses, desperate for help. One man in his early twenties suffered a mass of tumors in his neck, “until his neck was drum tight and wide as his thigh and slowly choking him.”
When a young Mexican woman refused to tell her family what was ailing her, Huyler gently convinced them to leave the room. When he and a nurse coaxed the woman to lift up her shirt, they discovered “the cancer in her breast had eaten half her chest, and it was black, and reeking, and I could see her exposed ribs through the raw red tumor.”
(The woman’s younger sister insisted she was just being “shy.”)
Huyler also describes the time he became a patient himself. As he rode his motorcycle alone in the New Mexico desert, he took a curve too quickly and skidded out. In instinctive panic, he stuck his foot out to break his fall and instantly snapped his ankle.
“I hardly felt anything. But when the rear tire caught the ground again, it threw me up and over, and I came down hard on my head and shoulder,” he writes.
Without a phone or nearby help, Huyler managed to get his bike restarted and drove himself home, 25 miles across the desert, his ankle throbbing. At the hospital, he had to be operated on by an orthopedic surgeon, and says he felt vulnerable going under anesthesia for the first time in his life.
“I was sitting there looking at the anesthesiologist pushing the Propofol hooked up to an IV in my arm, which is the same stuff Michael Jackson would take,” Huyler told The Post. “I was watching this white liquid flow into my arm, concentrating and then, poof, you’re just gone. That memory of profound absence was what I took away from it, and in a weird way it was comforting.”
But it was terror he felt when his son, Colin, was born, and he had to cede control to another doctor during the difficult delivery. After his wife took numbing drugs and drank a sugary soda to help with severely painful contractions, he listened to a rare desert hailstorm that lasted through the anxious night and felt “the imperfect memory of lights and needles.”
When Colin finally entered the world, Huyler’s joy was unsurpassed. “Being a father, you realize you are part of a larger narrative,” he says. “Life sweeps through you, pass it on. There is a beauty in that you’re part of a much larger story.”
Even so, Huyler — who is now 55 and still working as a doctor at the University of New Mexico Medical Center — says one of the greatest challenges of his job is the constant presence of death.
“When you’re around death for quite a while, you realize it’s essentially mysterious,” he says. “You never get closer to it no matter how many times you see people die. The one thing you do know is that it’s real.”
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