Friday, March 16, 2018

Nooger. A Word.

My next newspaper column:

Like coal ash, Trumpic horrors keep fouling the waters; but here’s a note from my surgery days anyway:
It’s said medical students learn over twelve thousand new words. Some I enjoyed just for the saying: Inspissated. Radiculopathy. Tachyarrhythmia. Intussusception. Pancreaticoduodenectomy. Bezoar.
Bee-zore. For fun, say it like "air-ball" at a basketball game. (Digression: It's been shown that the chant is always in the same pitch, the same notes on the scale. F - D, matter of fact.) 
There’s also a more esoteric lexicon: words or terms that bubbled into the vernacular unofficially but have become universally understood within various medical sub-cultures: gomer, Q-sign, lipstick sign, chandelier sign (definitions on request). One of my favorites has it all: nice sound, excellent meaning, and, in my case, a connection to a beloved mentor. The word is “nooger.” 
In “Cutting Remarks,” my book about surgical training, I described learning to dissect through distorted, inflamed tissues, calling the method "delicate brutality." (Too late, I realized that would have been a better title for the book.) Central to the technique is the ability to nooger; namely, judiciously insinuating a finger into a scary space, wiggling, pinching, until you find a way through without poking a hole into something important. 
Noogering can be done with other blunt instruments: a sucker, closed scissors, a blunt clamp, often along with the finger. Indeed, it requires a combination of delicacy and brutality, plus some sort of either learned or innate sense of touch; of tissue turgor (there's another good word: turgor) and confidence of anatomy. If you can't tell where a thing is, you need to be fairly confident in where it isn't.  
Not all surgeons need to nooger. Orthopods and neurosurgeons don't. Bone isn't noogerable, and brain, well... But a general surgeon incapable of noogering is bound for trouble. In a situation demanding it -- precarious as it usually is -- I'd rather do it myself than try to tell someone else how. Bad noogering can lead to death, or something a lot like it. 
Among my favorite characters from training was the chief cardiac surgery resident, a gangly, good-humored, soft-spoken, slow-walking but fast-thinking southern boy, Joe (full name: Joe) Utley. In stark contrast to the other men populating that department -- who were volatile, egomaniacal, crazy, nasty, or pretty much any combination of those characteristics -- Joe was laid-back, engaging, and highly talented. He told dumb jokes, quoted lines from movies, played the flugelhorn while wearing a sombrero, and treated me -- his over-worked intern -- with respect and caring; although, it could be argued, having an intern and his girlfriend (now wife) over and subjecting them to the horn and the hat was anything but respectful. 
I loved the guy. (Joe died not long ago. I sent a copy of my book, in which he played a prominent role, to his wife; she wrote back that she knew he'd have loved it, and she could imagine him laughing out loud while reading it. That made me feel good.) 
In connecting a person to a heart-lung machine, it's necessary to control blood returning to the heart via the venae cavae. That requires (did then, anyway) slinging the veins in a sort of noose around the tubes inside. That necessitates dissecting within the pericardium, behind those delicate structures, completely encircling them. Joe had a favorite instrument for the job, a very large clamp with a curved and bluntly-rounded tip. This he referred to as a "Giant Noogerer." 
Open heart surgery has a certain drama, and, in those relatively early days on the time-line, tension compounded by lengthiness. But as an intern on the service, because there was always lots to do, stretching into sleeplessness, time in the cardiac room was -- depending on who was in charge -- often unpleasant. With no opportunity to do anything but stand there and answer gotcha-questions from the chief of service, the hours dragged the day's work further into the night.  
Except with Joe. I found myself looking forward each time, as the moment approached, to hearing him ask for the tool. "Giant noogerer," he'd say, hand out, and it always arrived with no need for clarification. With his Carolina accent, it sounded like "jahnt nurgrer." In his hands, it was a delicate instrument; on his lips, though, it sounded like something you’d find deep in the Everglades, at night. 
[Image source]


  1. Haven't yet made it to the end before tripping on 'nooger', Sid. A search yields Urban Dictionary hits at the top. Were you aware of that? Someone else is sure to point it out. Jus' wunderin'.

  2. I have always been fond of the onomatopoetic “borborygmi,” and the way “ankylosing spondylitis” rolls off the tongue.

  3. Wasn't aware specifically, but the vision the word conjures to a layperson is why I chose the title picture for the post.

  4. The above response is to Dr S. For Pieter, yes, those are great choices, too. Maybe even better than mine. But for the column I'm space limited. A version of this appeared on my surgery blog, and it had more words. Also, it had a different picture of Ralph, with his finger up his nose, as suggested by my wife.

  5. Duh. Blew right past your graphic. I think that the monkey house will miss it tomorrow. They usually don't get far beyond your name before they start their usual whooping and screeching.

  6. The "headline" photos only appear on this blog. I assume the usual suspects read it @ Heraldnet,.

  7. I stumbled upon this post courtesy of a Facebook post by a blogger I recently encountered through another blogger I've never met. My online relationships are, by and large, accidental and, when I try to recall how they came to be, mysterious. I enjoyed reading this post. I was sufficiently intrigued to explore a bit more about what you have written. As I wandered through what you've shared with the world through your blogs, I found your stories interesting and the way you told them engaging. But, then, I read Surgeonsblog, specifically I felt as if I were in your shoes, doing everything to save a thirteen year old girl who was, by the time she reached your OR, beyond saving. Writing that brings tears to my eyes is, in my view, good writing. Now, I feel compelled to buy your book. Thanks for sharing your stories and your words.

  8. Many thanks, JS. I took a stroll through your eponymous blog, and liked it, too.


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