When a Random House editor read Jay Wellons’ 2020 essay in The New York Times about the extraordinary effort to save a seriously injured young girl, he was so moved by the story that he contacted Wellons, who is in charge of pediatric neurosurgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The resulting book, Everything That Moves Us: A Pediatric Neurosurgeon, His Young Patients, and Their Stories of Grace and Resilienceis a compelling account of the doctor’s life and career.
The stakes are often high in Wellons’ medical field, and his stories capture the serious realities of his work. In “Luke’s Jump”, a 12-year-old boy injures his head in a sudden accident during a bicycle race. The father hastens to arrive at his son’s side, hug him and take him to the hospital. In the waiting room, as Wellons describes the procedure he is about to perform, he looks at the father’s shoes. “There, slightly higher up, on the cuff of his blue jeans and spilling over his socks, I could make out a vaguely familiar grayish color amid the blood that had made its way onto his clothes. It was brain matter. His own son’s brain matters. Mixed with blood and hair and dirt and grass, right there on his person. It was then that Wellons, early in his career as a surgeon at this point, realized the distinction between the urgent, adrenaline-fueled excitement of operating on a body and the simple responsibility of being in charge of the survival of someone’s child.
His passion for healing does not make him infallible. In “Rubber Bands”, he treats a little girl named Cheyenne who suffers from subdural empyema – an infection on the surface of the brain. The operation is going well and Cheyenne is on the mend. It wasn’t until several months later that Wellons discovered that he had left behind two rubber bands, instruments used to secure scalp tissue that had been cut and folded away, inside Cheyenne’s brain. When he informs Cheyenne and her mother of his mistake, Cheyenne’s mother says, “My baby is here because of what you did that day. …I don’t care if you left your car keys there, Doctor Wellons. His gratitude is not unique. Many patients were so grateful for Wellons’ life-changing surgery that they stayed in touch with him over the years, often sending photos or postcards with life updates.
All this Mlike us does not just focus on the medical drama of life or death. There are also lighter personal memories. In “Family Charades”, Wellons describes a Christmas surprise gone wrong:
Years before I was born, when my sisters, Eve and Sarah, were eight and four and living with my parents in Richmond, Virginia, our father brought home a new color television for Christmas. A huge thing, as deep as it is wide, with a rotary knob for twelve channels. I imagine its weight is almost overwhelming. After cajoling a work friend to help, then fighting to bring it over one afternoon while the girls were away, Dad found it fit neatly under a table near the far corner. from the den. The ground sheet, he thought, would be all that was needed to complete the camouflage for the three weeks before Christmas.
Wellons’ father was unaware that the table was Sarah’s favorite hiding place, who soon ran into it while crawling under the table. What follows is a double family deception by Wellons’ mother, who hides the fact that the girls watch television every day while dad is away and teaches them how to act surprised on Christmas morning. Dad eventually found out the truth, but by then the story had spread to the extended family.
In graceful and direct prose, Wellons recounts his experiences as a son, father, surgeon, friend and endless medical student, sharing some of the most intimate moments of his personal and professional life. He freely admits the mistakes he has made over the years and he admits to worrying about bringing work home in the form of excessive concern for his own children and sudden accidents that could cause them to fall into a operating table. Everything that touches us is the story of a dedicated surgeon, told with honesty and humility.
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