A Stitch in Tme…

From time to time I’ll be sharing some words from my personal journal/sketchbook for my next novel, The Virgin Cure. In this first installment, I’m journaling about my recent experience of learning to suture. (The Virgin Cure is set in NYC in the 1870’s and is inspired by my great-great grandmother and her fight to practice medicine in an era when female physicians were considered freakish and impossible.)

Sally the Seamstress from The Nightmare Before Christmas

August 31, 2007 – Learning to Suture
Yesterday, I learned to suture.
Why would I want to do such a thing?
1. It’s an essential medical technique.
2. In basic practice, it isn’t all that different from Sarah’s time.
3. It’s something that I can attempt without a fear of failing miserably, or passing out.

In the end, I came away from the experience feeling things I hadn’t anticipated. In a moment of surprise and even happiness, I found the instruments weren’t unfamiliar to me.
Once I saw them out on the table, I realized that my mother had parts of a suturing kit in her make-up drawer. (Of all places!) Seeing the needle driver and the stitch scissors instinctively made me think of her, the same way eyelash curlers and tweezers always do. I know she had at least one suture needle in her sewing cabinet. (Maybe all rural mothers kept a suturing kit in the house at one time?)

I was also surprised by my lack of squeamishness. (We were practicing on beef hearts.) Part of my brain took in the particulars while another part imagined Sarah and her classmates at the Women and Children’s Infirmary in New York. The atmosphere would have been similar, I think – the group small, female and focused. The location – an intimate room tucked away in the upstairs of an old building.

I attempted a few different kinds of stitches and soon found I was better at some than others. (The subcuticular stitch is a bugger!)

What struck me the most, was this: There was a great sense of togetherness present in the room, not unlike a quilting or knitting circle, or any other group where women gather to work alongside one another. There was also laughter and appreciation over the fact that we were performing what naturally felt like “women’s work” in order to master something that is so far out of what we had considered ordinary. As a friend recently said to me, “suturing isn’t just about mastering a skill (practice is not an option), but it also requires grooming one’s ego to the point where you feel you have the right to put a needle through another human being’s skin without a second thought.”
I can only imagine! Even in my short day of practice, I found delicate needlework experience was not enough – I had to muster up determination and daring along with my dexterity.

In the end, I felt a great surge of pride as the edges came together, colour and texture brought back into harmony, my stitches anchored, secure and even. As I packed up to head home, I imagined Sarah and her classmates feeling a sense of smugness when all was said and done – boasting that although they had been born to sitting rooms and parlours, their finest handiwork would be carried out and displayed on the mothers and children of the Lower East Side.

Frank Holl, The Song of the Shirt (1875) copyright Royal Albert Memorial Museum

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