July/August 2012 - Vol. 61..
The Bone Surgeon: A personal story of a life-changing revolution
 by Andrzej Solecki


illustrations by Grzegorz Grys
There is a comic strip by a well-known Polish cartoonist that I keep remembering. It presents trivial, seemingly unconnected events from the life of one person. Each of the drawings is provided with a date and a caption, such as: “April 4, 1976: got spattered by a car”, “November 3, 1982: slammed my finger with a hammer”, “May 10, 1986: got completely stoned”, etc. The last picture explains the connection between the events. The character is in the water, waving his hands desperately. The bubble above his head says: “I was drowning. My whole life flashed before my eyes.” 
My life has probably been as exciting as the one in the comic strip, maybe with the exception of several significant events; like the fall of Communism; starting a family and a few meaningful encounters and conversations. However, I still see it as an adventure, which I owe solely to the unusual people whom I met along the way. There was one Extraordinary Person, who left a very special mark... 

Chapter 1: The Tools

It was 1987. I came back to work after a two-week holiday in Yugoslavia. I had an impressive tan, which made me stand out among my colleagues. It was noticeable for three reasons. First, in those days very few Poles travelled to the warm countries. Second, the white medical coveralls contrasted splendidly with my tanned skin. Third, my position in the professional hierarchy was rather low; a junior assistant with a short working experience and a small salary. I was therefore not too surprised by the question, ‘So how much did this tan cost you?’, dropped causally by a fellow surgeon during a morning visit. I really didn’t want to go into the details of how my wife’s ingenuity and resourcefulness made our holiday possible. The vacation had cost us a Zenit camera, a used gas bottle, a two-ring gas cooker, my father-in-law’s four old suits, two brand new vacuum flasks, two sleeping bags and a camping set of four chairs and a table. Yugoslavians would queue in front of our tent to buy those goods. Due to the complexity of the problem, I thought it best to leave the question unanswered. 

Yugoslavia, which did not yet see the tragic and fratricidal war coming, appeared to me as paradise on Earth. Especially when compared with the dullness and hopelessness of the Polish People’s Republic. 

One sunny day I was sitting on a rocky beach and chatting with a Pole, whom I met on the campsite. He might have been one or two years younger than me. 

‘What do you do for a living?’, he asked.

 ‘I will name some of the tools that I use at work and you try to guess my profession.’

‘Sounds interesting.’

‘A hammer and a chisel…’, I began.

‘A sculptor?’


‘A carpenter?’


‘Not a carpenter? Go on, then.’

‘A screwdriver, forceps, and a drill...’

‘A lock smith?’


‘An electrician?’

‘No, I’m not an electrician.’

‘Go on.’

‘Needles and threads’, I added, just to make it a little bit harder for him. He got confused. 

‘Why don’t you tell me what material you work with?’

‘Well, it’s mainly skin and bones’, I replied truthfully.

‘I know!’, he exclaimed triumphantly. ‘Craftwork!’

‘Close, but not quite there.’

I finally had to explain to him that I was a bone surgeon. Then I was asked a revenge riddle about my fellow camper’s job, which I also failed to guess. His profession was connected with extreme sports, huge risk and car racing… he was an ambulance driver. 

So how do you become a bone surgeon? It probably begins with a vocation to be a doctor, then there comes the passion for a particular specialty. Well, my story was slightly different. I could probably say that I was prompted to choose my career by the government of the People’s Poland. In the course of my studies, I was repeatedly haunted by doubts concerning my choice of profession. I experienced a number of vocational crises, which increased proportionally to the amount of alcohol that I was consuming rather too frequently at that time. I didn’t feel comfortable in the company of medical students; I thought that they took their lives and their future far too seriously. My ‘party gang’ were three students from The Technical University of Kraków: my old school friend, Kuba and two indigenous residents of Kraków, Jasiek and “Little” Jurek.

As I was going through one of my vocational crises, a great opportunity came my way. Thanks to some family connections, I had a chance to find a job and to settle in Norway. 

Drilling platforms on the North Sea; here I come! Behold a new life! When I earn enough money, I will buy a recording studio and will earn a living by making my own music and selling millions of copies of my albums.

 All I needed was a passport…

 And how could you get a passport back in 1976?

 You had to fill in two enormous sheets of paper, substantiate the reasons for your trip and present an invitation from Western Europe. You also needed to submit ’a permit’ from a workplace or a university and a few other documents. Then, you had to queue your way to the headquarters of the Citizens’ Militia. After a month-long, thorough analysis of the citizen’s life, the People’s Government would either appoint the date of issuing the passport, or turn down the application. Students had their best chances of going abroad during their summer holidays, as the People’s Government was highly supportive of  young people who wanted to see the world, preferably as part of the Polish Socialist Youth Union. Private invitations also worked most of the time. 

I had two options: I could either wait eight months until the summer (which was an eternity), or I could try to get the invitation and present a convincing justification for my trip, which was more risky, but worth giving it my best shot. I managed to get an invitation from West Germany and then I had to lie about the reason to leave in the middle of the academic year. I can’t remember if I came up with a wedding or a funeral that I had to attend in West Germany, but it worked – I got the dean’s stamp! I submitted my passport application in Nowy Targ, the nearest Militia Headquarters to my home village of Rabka. After about a month, I was on my way to Nowy Targ to receive the passport. When the ‘blue bus’ was crossing the Rdzawka River, I gazed up at the mountains and said goodbye. Then I thought about my medical career and said goodbye to that too, only with no regret. Two hours later, I was on a similar blue bus, heading in the opposite direction. I gazed at the mountains and said ‘hello again’. My application had been turned down! My world had ended! 

Drilling platforms—‘goodbye’, Medical Academy—‘I’m back.’ It took me several days to recover from my disappointment in the company of my faithful friends from The Technical University. Eventually, the crisis passed and I continued studying medicine. 

Could the People’s Government have known what was best for me? 

My wavering vocation was finally solidified by my wedding vows to a medical student, Julitta and by the birth of our son Wojtek. We both wanted to settle in Western Europe after graduating from the academy, which made the choice of specialty obvious for me; it would be anaesthesiology. A degree in that field could easily be granted recognition abroad and there were a lot of jobs for anaesthesiologists in Western Europe. I started working at a Children’s Intensive Care Unit and it caused me an indescribable amount of stress. I found it hard to work out the dosages of tiny portions of strong drugs, I couldn’t get used to watching children die, and the worst thing was frequently having to inform the parents of their child’s death. On the other hand, the operating room made me feel like a ‘fish in water’. I considered anaesthesiology the queen of medical sciences and started to grow more and more big-headed. I learnt to anaesthesize in no time and quickly became very confident. Whether the surgery was going to happen or not was up to me! I had only been working for a year, and yet the experienced surgeons, not to mention the head of the ward himself, had to ask me if they could start operating. It was a gratifying feeling which compensated for the stress that damaged me in the ward.  

(c) 2011 Andrzej Solecki

Click on links below to read separate chapters.
Chapter 1 The Tools
Chapter 2 Communism and the Trouble with Grazyna
Chapter 3 Intuition and Resuscitation
Chapter 4 Post-Wedding Bash

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