When the Mop Count Did Not Tally

Expert taken from the Book ‘Wise and Otherwise – A Salute to Life!” by Sudha Murty

My father was a doctor and a very popular professor of obstetrics and gynaecology. He would never bore his class with long lectures. Every now and then he would tell his students stories, usually real-life incidents, in order to liven up his lectures. As a result, his classes were well attended and lively.

I once asked him, ‘Why do you tell so many stories in a medical class?’ ‘Don’t you know why the Panchatantra was written?’ he asked in reply. ‘But the Panchatantra is not relevant,’ I insisted. ‘It’s for young schoolgoing

children, not for medical students.’

My father didn’t agree. ‘If I use stories, then it’s easy for my students to understand. Moreover, one cannot hold a student’s attention for more than forty- five minutes at a stretch even if the lecture is interesting. So, if I add stories, I can stretch their concentration span for up to two hours.’

The following was one of his stories. My father says that the incident actually took place in England.

The operation theatre is popularly called ‘OT’ among medical professionals. An OT nurse is considered a very responsible and powerful person in a hospital. She is highly respected by doctors and surgeons. Normally, only senior and experienced nurses are given the post of an OT nurse.

Once, a very popular and senior surgeon was operating on a patient. It happened that the regular OT nurse was on leave that day. The nurse who was posted to the OT in her place was a young girl of twenty-two. She was a greenhorn, just out of nursing school but smart and good at her work.

Before starting an operation, the nurse in charge usually counts the cotton


mops. A mop is a piece of sterilized cotton gauze. At the end of the operation, she counts the used and unused mops and totals them. This figure should tally with the number of mops counted at the start of the surgery. This procedure is followed strictly to prevent the possibility of a mop getting left behind in a patient’s body through oversight.

The operation was successful and the surgeon was about to sew up and close the abdomen. In keeping with the routine, he asked the OT nurse, ‘Sister, is the mop count okay? If it is fine, give me the needle and catgut.’

The young nurse counted the mops and said, ‘Sorry doctor, the count is not okay. There is a difference of one mop.’

The surgeon started searching inside the abdomen. He found no mop. ‘No, sister, there’s nothing inside,’ he told her. The nurse searched the OT, but she too could not find the missing mop.

She was quite concerned. If the mop count did not tally, the surgeon could not stitch up the patient’s abdomen. The surgeon was concerned too. He insisted that if the missing mop was not found, then there must have been an error in the initial count. But the sister was very confident of her count and was quite firm that she had not gone wrong.

The surgeon became impatient and said, ‘Let’s not waste any more time. Give me the needle and catgut.’

But the sister would not agree. Politely, but firmly, she said, ‘No sir, unless I find that missing mop, I cannot give you the needle and catgut.’

The surgeon contained his rising anger and searched the abdomen once again.

Finally, he said in a sharp voice, ‘I am the senior person here. I am also responsible. Now, I order you to give me the needle and catgut.’

The nurse was in a dilemma. But she did not change her stance.

The surgeon was really angry by now. ‘If you do not obey my instructions, I will dismiss you after the operation,’ he warned.

Now the nurse was worried. She was the eldest in her family and the only earning member. It would be terrible if she were to lose her job. She was fully aware of her precarious position, but still she stuck to what she thought was correct. ‘Sorry sir, I cannot give you the needle and catgut.’

It was an impossible situation. The inexperienced nurse’s apparent defiance had the surgeon fuming. He was so upset that he did not know what to do. He looked down in frustration. To his amazement, he saw the blood-soaked cotton


mop lying on the OT floor like a wounded soldier on the battlefield.

He was so relieved that the problem had been sorted out. ‘Hey, the mop is here,’ he exclaimed. ‘Now the count is complete. Give me the—’ Before he could complete the sentence, the needle and catgut were in his hands.

After everything was over, the surgeon called the young nurse aside and expressed his appreciation. He told her, ‘I am sorry that I put extra pressure on you, sister. However, I am curious to know whether you were scared when I threatened to dismiss you. Did you not believe me when I told you that I was responsible for what happened? Under all this pressure, how could you stand your ground?’

She said hesitantly, ‘Sir, I merely obeyed the principle taught to me by my teacher—if the mop count is not correct, then the needle and catgut should not be given to the surgeon. When experienced teachers say something then they must have their reasons. I just followed my teacher’s words.’

The surgeon was wonderstruck and immensely pleased.

At the end of a story, my father would say, ‘Each patient is precious. Be careful. If a patient dies, it is just one more hospital death for the doctor. But for the unfortunate family, it is a permanent loss.’