gore blimey

Auto-surgery? I could not do it to save my life - or indeed anyone else's
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Many of us are capable of auto-suggestion. Even more are dab-hands at auto-eroticism. But few of us, I suspect, could be relied upon to perform auto-surgery. This week, however, Pete Goss - round-the-world yachtsman - joined the select band of those who have operated on themselves, and the even selecter band of those who have survived.

Mr Goss was a few hundred miles off Cape Horn - in an area of the South Pacific where the Accident and Emergency facilities are even more impossible to access than they are in Liverpool on a Saturday night - when he ruptured the muscles around his left elbow. He could no longer use his left arm at all, and it is apparently nearly impossible to get a yacht single-handedly (so to speak) the 2,000 miles to New Zealand without both arms. Things looked grim.

But there was good news for the ex-Royal Marine, who was advised (via his shipboard fax machine) that he need not die; that the situation was perfectly remediable. All he had to do, the doctors told him, was to perform a minor operation on his arm and he would be as right as rain.

We can only imagine (since he has not yet reached port to tell his own tale) how initial relief turned to apprehension as the fax-doctors outlined what he must do.

In terms reminiscent of Charlton Heston talking air-stewardess Karen Black and her pilotless Jumbo Jet to earth in Airport 2, the distant docs told Goss how he must cut into the flesh above his elbow, over the joint itself, go down to the bone, rootle about at the knob on the bone, stripping away muscle fibre that had got stuck in the wrong place, and finally, carefully, suture the wound.

Then all he had to do was sail the 2,000 miles to New Zealand. All this, as my observant colleague has pointed out, without a general anaesthetic.

Could you do it? Even in extremis? Could you sit there, as Goss did, with a torch strapped to your head and a mirror strapped to your knee, and pull the muscle fibre off your own bones? I couldn't.

But then, what can I do? Even as a writer of television reviews I am handicapped by not being able to watch any of the vast number of hospital documentaries that routinely spray gore and bodily fluids on to our screens.

Even the anonymous gash of red in a discreet surgical white sends me from the room, let alone the inevitable pulsing heart, corrugated brain or convoluted intestine. I shut my eyes during the injection scene in Pulp Fiction (and I knew that wasn't true) and can only now, after 40 screenings, bear its earlier, less offensive equivalent - the mass sheep deflation in Far From The Madding Crowd.

This squeamishness terrifies me. Not because I want to watch lots of gory hospital stuff, but because I am haunted by a vision in which my inadequacy leads to someone else's death. In my daydream I am having lunch with a friend, or am at home with the kids, when suddenly someone needs an emergency tracheotomy. There is no time for ambulances or helicopters - to save their life means plunging a pair of dividers, or a metal kebab skewer, into the windpipe, and then inserting a straw, to allow the passage of air.

But what if it all goes wrong? If you don't plunge hard enough, and have to keep on plunging, until their neck is like a pin-cushion? Or you plunge too hard, nailing them to the dining-room table? Or you miss, slicing through the carotid artery, so they bleed to death within seconds? Or the straw is wider than the hole? Wouldn't it really be more humane to let the poor bugger die?

This is not, of course, good enough. The last look in their dying eyes would be a reproach to you - a reproach that would stay with you till the grave. Short of setting up Gorephobes Anonymous, all I can think to do is gradually to acclimatise myself to blood and guts, building up the number of operations I watch on TV, then attending first aid classes, next practising on pets - and finally carrying out small routine procedures on myself and family. It's a matter of life and death.