Closed Heart Surgery

Going under the knife is an arduous, lonely experience, and anyone who will share your pain is welcome. But Donald Rumsfeld? Finding an unlikely medical companion in the Defense secretary.

Going in, I knew that surgery—even routine rotator cuff surgery—had its risks and unintended consequences. But I never imagined it would bring me closer, physically and emotionally, to Donald Rumsfeld. In early September, a few weeks after my surgery, the Defense secretary went through an identical procedure, and now whenever I see pictures of him with his arm in a sling, I experience uncontrollable twinges of empathy.

Even though it’s an out-patient procedure, shoulder surgery renders you sore, humbled, and incapacitated. It also left me in such a weakened condition that I can feel Rumsfeld’s pain and misery. Heavens to Betsy, as Rumsfeld might put it—how can I empathize with a figure of such “diabolical incompetence” (as the New Republic referred to him), who’s unilaterally scorned as an imperious bungler by Bob Woodward, David Brooks, and Thomas Ricks, among the multitude of other prominent critics? Trust me, it’s a horrible experience, finding yourself in Rumsfeld’s radioactive shoes, even vicariously—like being John Malkovich with no comic relief.

According to news reports, Rumsfeld’s “maceration” was the result of an athletic injury, probably from his overly aggressive squash game. As near as I can tell, mine was more passive aggressive. Rather than any specific trauma, I blame my injured status on a combination of aging and household labor, years of shoveling, scraping, and hammering, with my right arm overtaxed and hyperextended.

But the fallout and aftershocks are virtually the same. Projecting from my own surgery, I have a nightmare vision of Rumsfeld waking in a hospital recovery room, dazed by anesthesia and painkillers, with his arthroscopically repaired shoulder sutured and taped, immobilized by IV tubes and a motorized ice pack. After the narcotics wear off, the post-op pain begins, freakishly radiating up and down the afflicted arm like tiny lightning bolts, making it impossible to find a comfortable resting or sleeping position. Then there are feelings of helplessness and frustration at no longer being able to manage even the simplest household tasks.

I suppose there’s some consolation in knowing that this is a “hot” surgery, according to the testimony of an orthopedist in Time magazine, one that puts me in the company of Kerry Wood, John Kerry, and other, non-Kerry notables.Like Rumsfeld, I left the hospital encumbered with a sling—not just a standard let-it-hang type, but a deluxe model, with a cushion between the arm and the ribcage. If his recovery-in-progress mirrors mine, he’s also been bothered by the lesser side effects: the stiffness, the bone-deep itch, the chronic discomfort, the weak and atrophied bicep, the hand tremors when lifting a fork or coffee cup.

By most accounts, Rumsfeld doesn’t like to second-guess himself, but there must be times during his rehab when he wonders, as I frequently do, whether the operation was worth the pain and disability, which seems so much more intense after the surgery than before. But I have only to remember the stern warning of my orthopedic surgeon: If you don’t fix it now, it’s only going to get worse, and eventually it won’t be fixable.

There’s indirect evidence to suggest that Rumsfeld, with his cast-iron, hawkish, all-American image—as a college wrestler, Navy pilot, CEO, and hot warrior—may be prepared to accept his shoulder injury more stoically and philosophically than I am. Some of that evidence comes from a book, Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld, taken directly from his lyrical pronouncements at Pentagon press conferences. It includes memorable statements such as this one, entitled “The Situation:” Things will not be necessarily continuous./The fact that they are something other than perfectly continuous/Ought not to be characterized as a pause./There will be some things that people will see./There will be some things that people won’t see./And life goes on.

More than two months after the surgery, life does indeed go on, for me as well as Rumsfeld. At least my sling is hanging in a closet, and I’m midway through physical therapy, slowly, tortuously regaining flexibility and strength. I now have limited use of my right limb—combing, scrubbing, brushing, driving—but it will be weeks, probably months, before I’m capable of such everyday chores as changing an overhead light bulb, mowing and raking the lawn, and vacuuming (none of which I’ll bet are part of Rumsfeld’s everyday routine).

I suppose there’s some consolation in knowing that this is a “hot” surgery, according to the testimony of an orthopedist in Time magazine, one that puts me in the company of Kerry Wood, John Kerry, and other, non-Kerry notables. But whatever comfort the orthopedist offered, he retracted by concluding his column with a proviso about the benefits of arthoscopic surgery: “So, Mr. Rumsfeld (and our other sore-shouldered Americans), please bear in mind: this too costs a lot and takes longer than you might think.”

You can take it from one sore-shouldered American: This is surgery I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, though in Rumsfeld’s case I’m happy to make an exception. While I can’t avoid empathizing with him, I have as much sympathy for Rumsfeld as I would for a buzzard with a crippled wing. In that vein, I heartily endorse the sentiments of the Wonkette website, which announced his surgery with the headline: “Rumsfeld’s Last Human Part Replaced.”

To judge by his combative public posturing, his jokey, folksy, “Goodness gracious” dismissals of his critics, Rumsfeld has little or no capacity for either sympathy or empathy himself. By any measure of justice, he ought to be experiencing many sleepless nights—not just because of his sore shoulder or his temporary inability to play squash but because of his crucial role in the Iraq debacle. As one of his former employees, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, testified before a Senate committee: Rumsfeld is “incompetent, strategically, operationally, and tactically.”

There’s always the possibility that Rumsfeld’s shoulder surgery and subsequent recovery have turned him into a humbler and more caring person, despite so much public testimony to the contrary. Still, such compassion seems like an unlikely stretch for the bureaucrat who described the violence and anarchy in Iraq as “untidy” and portrayed the Guantánamo hunger strikers as being on a “diet.” Rumsfeld has probably discarded the sling on his arm by now. But he’s still wearing a proverbial sling on a posterior part of his anatomy. It may not be visible but it’s sure to be a permanent fixture of his political legacy, even if historians put it in more prosaic terms.

Writer John Blades is a former book editor/critic at the Chicago Tribune and author of the 1992 novel, Small Game (Holt). He has also written for the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The Morning News, and numerous other publications. More by John Blades