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Bob Dylan Gigs At The Operating Room

December 2, 2016

Most of my work these days involves content marketing. I still do editorial work, however, because I enjoy the challenge.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

Some of my biggest challenges come from The Rumpus, which publishes a mix of essays, reviews, interviews, short fiction, and poetry. Some of the essays are intensely personal. One was about a young woman’s wrenching struggle with colorectal cancer.

The story had some very graphic elements. The managing editor told me she wanted someone who would “choose the right moments to illustrate,” rather than submit work that would “make us all queasy.” I appreciated the compliment. I do like to think I’m pretty good at finding “the right moments.”blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

After several years of tests, frustration, and misdiagnoses, the author travels to Boston to see a specialist:BlankVertSpace.8pixels

My parents came with me to the appointment. My mother wore a fuchsia blouse
and her trademark purple Converse high tops. My father’s thick bifocals, usually smudged with fingerprints, had been cleaned for the occasion. How would it feel to accompany your twenty-eight-year-old daughter to the doctor, to look at her and imagine a tumor growing inside her, this person you created, birthed, and raised? The three of us sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the doctor’s fluorescent-lit office as he made his pronouncement, the same as the doctors’ in Seattle: A growth. Not Crohn’s disease.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

doctor wearing blue scrubs preparing to act like God and announce diagnosis from pulpit in church young woman and her parents sitting in front pew waiting anxiously for verdict

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highShe was a grad student, and thought she had insurance.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

But a problem arose. Because the coverage started with the fall quarter, the university had a rule that a student needed to be enrolled in at least one class in order to be eligible for the insurance. My surgery was scheduled for October, less than a month into the fall quarter. I wouldn’t be able to attend class for several weeks following the surgery, maybe even months. How could I enroll in school if
I couldn’t go?

The woman at the student insurance office came up with a work-around:BlankVertSpace.8pixels

She suggested that I sign up for an independent study. I connected with a librarian I’d done some volunteer tutoring with the previous year, and made a plan to assist her in creating curriculum guides to accompany library kits for preschoolers. I would do research on child development and write a paper.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high
woman at public library looking at directory sign showing books, CDs, DVDs, latchkey kids, computers, pornography, gender-free restrooms, help desk, insurance scams

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highShe meets with the doctor, who, along with another doctor from the same hospital, will perform her surgery.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

“We are the two best colorectal surgeons on the West Coast,” he said, beaming… “Let’s take a look at your films.”

The reader was not in another room, as my TV hospital drama-fed mind had assumed, but actually in the hallway… He flipped a switch and the reader lit up, exposing my lower half: pelvic bones, coccyx, abdomen, colon. He pointed to a
golf-ball-sized white area, near the bottom of my spine…

“We’d take out your rectum, your anus,” he was saying. “It’s hard to tell for sure where this mass is until we open you up…”

A door opened beside us and another doctor emerged from his office. I hoped that my doctor would take down the films, suggest we continue the conversation back in the exam room. Instead, he greeted the other doctor, who stopped on his way to the front desk. I thought he might look at my scan, deliver his own opinion… but he seemed to take no notice of them, or even of me. He looked up at the ceiling above their heads.

“That light bulb has been burned out for a long time,” he said.

“You’re right,” my doctor said. The two men stood there, heads tilted back, trying
to puzzle it out.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

Hospital hallway x-ray display unit two doctors ignore crying patient to stare at burnt-out light bulb hanging from ceiling

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highFinally she’s in the operating room.BlankVertSpace.8pixels

Two nurses helped me onto the table. Bob Dylan played softly in the background. One surgeon was there, along with a resident and the anesthesiologist…

“This reminds me of college,” I said. I meant that the combination of the sedative and the lyrics to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” coming from a portable stereo I couldn’t see reminded me of getting high on tapestried couches in over-warm dorm rooms… 

Someone placed a mask over my face. I coughed. The harmonica cut out. Dylan,
his voice a whisper, called me babe and told me over and over that it was all right. Guitar notes faded as he retreated down the dark side of the road.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

Singer Bob Dylan as surgeon asking nurse for harmonica, don't think twice it's all right

You can read the entire essay on

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Any thoughts on the story or the illustrations? Please leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to recommend it, please click the Like button below. To share it, click Tweet, Facebook, or one of the other Share buttons.

You might also enjoy this post about another Rumpus assignment: it was for an essay entitled My Evenings Reading Alone.

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About Mark: I’m an illustrator specializing in humor, branding, social media, and content marketing. I create images that get content seen and shared.

You can view my portfolio, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Questions? Send me an email.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2016 12:47 PM

    Christmas keeps my on the lookout for warm, fuzzy stories; not ones about the tribulations of colon cancer. BUT, BUT your illustrations pulled me into the story. Well done! Both the selection of moments to illustrate, and the illustrations themselves. You created an engaging story, nicely brushed with humor. Note to fairy godmother: next time you come around, I’d like to have 25% of Mark Armstrong’s gift as an illustrator


    • December 9, 2016 8:25 PM

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for your lovely comment. I’m hanging my head in shame here for being so long in responding– do forgive me. I’m so glad you enjoyed the illustrations, and thank you again for all the kind words. You’ve given the ol’ Armstrong spirits a tremendous boost, and I must tell you it’s very pleasant floating way up here at ceiling level!

      I made a visit to your blog. I hope your NaNoWriMo project was a success. Writing a 50,000-word novel in a month?? You are clearly made of stern stuff!! I guess I’m assuming you survived the experience… : )

      Thanks again for your very kind comment– nice to meet you!!


      • December 9, 2016 8:35 PM

        Didn’t make the NaNoWriMo goal. About 20000 words short. But I wrote a hundred times more than I have before. Was pleased with the result. Not because it was good, but because it was much improved. Had a good time and will definitely finish next year. Nice meeting you as well! Wishing you a successful 2017!



  1. Bob Dylan Cartoon Drawings Part – 4 – NSF

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