July 8, 2009

Red-Blooded Red Sox Fans

By Brian Gilchrist, M.D.

She arrived by chopper, bled out and near death at age 11. Her wounds were a spiral of destruction—a boat propeller wound that grazed her neck and descended to her tail bone, furrowing deeper and deeper as her flesh parted to expose her spine. The sheets were stained with newly spilled blood, and her color was the white you see when snow first falls under moonlight. Her lips were blue, as if she’d just eaten a grape Popsicle.

Illustration by Randall McIlwaine, CartoonStock.com

The Medflight pros whisked her into our trauma room. She lay on her belly, so that pressure could be kept on her back wounds to stem the loss of blood. Our eyes met, and to my utter astonishment, she murmured, “Am I in Boston?” I leaned down, and in my Springfield, Mass., cadence, replied, “Ya’ , indeed.” She raised her head off the gurney: “I’m so happy, cuz I just love those Sox.”

The nurses nearly wept; the intern teared up, and I, an unrepentant Yankees fan from western Massachusetts, had not the heart to tell her where my team loyalty resided. It was too beautiful a Red Sox magical moment to ruin by uttering the hated “Y Word.” I simply stroked her hair, told her she was going to be fine, and that she would be watching her beloved Sox soon. I took her to the OR. The little Sox fan is doing remarkably well now, thanks also to Tufts plastic surgeon Dan Driscoll.

But what is one to make of such devotion, such intense fidelity at such a young age? Red Sox Nation is not a sovereign state; it is a spiritual state of consciousness.

Six years before I met this terribly injured girl, I walked to the Floating Hospital for Children to operate on a baby with a bowel obstruction. It was a Nor’easter night in February. The streets were glazed with ice; winds howled at 40 knots, and Boston’s streets were nearly empty as I crossed the Common to the hospital.

I met the baby’s parents. The father had a plethoric Irish face, shovels for hands and the smell of whiskey on his breath. It was a Saturday night after all; he reminded me of my family. I shook his hand, told him who I was and what I was going to do to help his baby. But with the fierceness of the storm outside, the father glared at me, stuck his finger in my face and seethed, “Are you a Yankees fan?” The adjective preceding Yankees shocked the OR personnel—all women—and sent me back on my heels. Keep him off balance, I thought; if he swings, move backwards. It was then that I realized the jacket I was wearing had a New York Yankees logo emblazoned across the front.

I stood back, away from those massive hands, and told him that indeed, I was so inclined, but that I was also the only surgeon crazy enough to be out in this weather to help his kid. He let me do the surgery, and his baby did very well. The father later bought me a bottle of Jameson, and I put away the offending jacket for good. I decided that I didn’t need to be rolling around a hospital with someone who thinks I’m a blood enemy because I grew up in a pinstripe community bordering the Connecticut Yankee horde.

This Red Sox Nation is not of this world. It is a state of mind that transforms a Johnny Damon into a Judas, a Mark Teixiera into a Benedict Arnold. It is an altered state of consciousness that gave this pediatric surgeon the following insight: indoctrinate early, and your followers will be fanatical, even on a near-deathbed, or in the middle of a violent winter storm—or in the hereafter.

Red Sox Nation does, indeed, have followers in the afterlife. In 2005, I was in Phoenix for a professional meeting. There is a cemetery on the road to the Phoenix airport. It is filled with Red Sox pennants, arrayed like the crosses at Normandy. They are everywhere. My cab driver told me that many New Englanders had retired to Phoenix, never having seen their Sox win a World Championship. When Boston finally broke the 86-year-old curse in 2004, the cabbie said, the children and grandchildren of those buried in the Southwest placed the pennants on their graves, certain they would assure their loved ones a place in heaven.

’Tis only a game, they say. But Red Sox baseball is a way of life, both physical and spiritual, make no mistake about it. And, as in life, the spirit always conquers the physical realm. Just go to Phoenix or visit my patient at the Floating.

Brian Gilchrist, A77, M84, is surgeon-in-chief at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center and director of its Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute. He is an associate professor of surgery at Tufts University School of Medicine.

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