Chapter 16
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On Matters of Life and Death

Neurosurgeon Jay Wellons reflects on a life devoted to healing

FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This review originally appeared on June 22, 2022. It has been updated with new publication details.


When an editor at Random House read Jay Wellons’ 2020 essay in The New York Times about the extraordinary effort to save a critically injured young girl, he was so moved by the story that he got in touch with Wellons, who is head of pediatric neurosurgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The resulting book, All That Moves Us, is a compelling account of the physician’s life and career.

Photo: Susan Urmy, courtesy of Vanderbilt University Medical Center

The stakes are often high in Wellons’ medical field, and his stories capture the grave realities of his work. In “Luke’s Jump,” a 12-year-old boy suffers a head injury in a sudden pile-up during a bike race. The father is quick to arrive at his son’s side, bundle him in his arms, and get him to a hospital. As he stands in a waiting room talking to Wellons, who is describing the procedure he is about to perform, Wellons looks down at the father’s shoes. “There, slightly higher, on the cuff of his blue jeans and spilling down his socks, I could make out a vaguely familiar grayish color amid blood that had made its way onto his clothes. It was brain matter. His own son’s brain matter. Mixed with blood and hair and dirt and grass, right there on his person.” It is then that Wellons, early in his career as a surgeon at this point, realizes the distinction between the urgent, adrenaline-fueled excitement of operating on a body and the sheer responsibility of being in charge of the survival of someone’s child.

His passion for healing doesn’t make him infallible. In “Rubber Bands,” he treats a little girl named Cheyenne who is suffering from a subdural empyema — an infection along the surface of the brain. The surgery goes well, and Cheyenne is on her way to recovery. It is only several months later that Wellons discovers he left two rubber bands, instruments used to secure scalp tissue that has been cut and folded back out of the way, inside Cheyenne’s brain. When he informs Cheyenne and her mother of his mistake, Cheyenne’s mother says, “My baby is here because of what you did that day. … I don’t care if you left your car keys up there, Dr. Wellons.” Her gratitude is not unique. Many patients have been so grateful for Wellons’ life-changing surgery that they remained in touch with him over the years, often sending photos or postcards with life updates.

All That Moves Us doesn’t focus solely on life-and-death medical drama. There are more lighthearted personal memories, as well. In “Family Charades,” Wellons describes a Christmas surprise gone awry:

Years before I was born, when my sisters, Eve and Sarah, were eight and four years old and living with my parents in Richmond, Virginia, our father brought home a new color television set for Christmas. A huge thing, as deep as it was wide, with a rotary knob for twelve channels. I imagine the weight of it being nearly overbearing. After cajoling a work friend to help and then struggling to bring it in one afternoon while the girls were away, Dad found it to fit neatly under a table near the far corner of the den. The floor-length tablecloth, he thought, would be all that was needed to complete the camouflage for the three weeks prior to Christmas.

Little did Wellons’ father know that table was a favorite hiding spot of Sarah’s, who soon bumped into it when crawling under the table. What follows is a double family deception by Wellons’ mother, who hides the fact that the girls are watching television each day while Dad is away and coaches them on how to act surprised on Christmas morning. Dad eventually found out the truth, but by then the tale had made the rounds through the extended family.

In graceful, direct prose, Wellons recounts his experiences as a son, father, surgeon, friend, and never-ending student of medicine, sharing some of the most intimate moments of both his personal and professional life. He willingly admits mistakes he has made over the years, and he confesses to concern about bringing work home with him in the form of excessive worry over his own children and the sudden accidents that could land them on an operating table. All That Moves Us is the story of a dedicated surgeon, told with honesty and humility.

On Matters of Life and Death

Abby N. Lewis is a part-time desk assistant for the North Knoxville Library and an adjunct English instructor at ETSU. She is the author of the poetry collection Reticent and the chapbook This Fluid Journey.

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