The Phantom of the Operation, and other tales from the crypt-ococcus

Catch up on the horrors of hospital medicine.


It's October, and time for another spooky column. If you are easily scared or prone to night terrors, perhaps you ought to wait for next month's column. In this installment, I recap some of my favorite scary medical horror stories.

The Phantom of the Operation

Illustration by David Rosenman
Illustration by David Rosenman

Strange and ominous occurrences in the operating rooms of the Palais Garnier General Hospital have the surgical staff on edge. Dr. Chagny is about to perform a complex laryngeal resection when his first assistant, Dr. Carlotta, has an unexplained illness. Stepping in to assist is a new intern, Dr. Christine from Sweden, who shows remarkable manual dexterity and anatomic knowledge. She admits to being trained by a mysterious figure in a surgical mask, her Angel of the OR. The chief of surgery receives a warning to make her first assistant or there will be dire consequences. Dr. Erik, the Phantom, lures his surgical protégé to the subbasement of the hospital and pulls off his mask, expecting her to scream. Instead she peers at his deformity and suggests reconstructive surgery.

Psycho-consult

Dr. Bates doesn't know what to do with his difficult patient. She is so hard to communicate with. To make matters worse, he has no possible discharge plan. He decides to consult the psychiatry service. The intern on call goes to see the elderly patient. She walks down the long dark hallway and slowly opens the creaky door. The patient sits unresponsive in a chair with her back to the door. Spoiler alert: She's not catatonic, she's deceased. Don't miss the great semiprivate room scene where the psychiatry intern, Dr. Loomis, is doing her exam and Dr. Bates unexpectedly pulls back the curtain. It's a scream!

Strang-ER Things

Four misfit interns are working in the emergency department in a small-town hospital when they meet an unusual medical student with strange powers. At the same time, government-funded research on neutron-beam therapy has turned everything sideways in the ED—odd patients arriving from parts unknown, with mysterious illnesses and unreadable medical records. When one intern goes missing, they rely on the head of security and a band of hospital volunteers to solve the mystery. Odd fibers inexplicably float through the air. It might be asbestos. Prepare for Stranger Danger.

The Amityville Hospital

Nobody wants the open position at the Amityville Hospital. Is it the unexplained pages in the middle of the night? Or maybe the malodorous smells in the hallway and miasmic vapors coming off the ventilator? Or perhaps it is the creepy, vermillion call rooms. When the Lutzes accept the position together as husband-and-wife hospitalists, little do they know that they are entering a facility where their predecessors mysteriously vanished. Will they survive their terrifying night on call? What is that green slime oozing out of the walls. Is it Pseudomonas?

A Nightshift on Elm Street

Ms. Grey, the nurse practitioner, is on the overnight shift, and things are very quiet for a change. She doesn't mind getting paid for resting. She got very little sleep this week; her kids have been having nightmares. She's glad to lie down, even in the narrow hard bed in the call room, and is out like a light. But in her dreams, the pager is buzzing, bed alarms are ringing, codes are being called. Then somehow, she is the patient and someone is administering chest compressions to her. She wakes with a start when her pager beeps. She sits up in bed and notices eight urgent pages. She must have slept right through them. As she slips on her lab coat, she looks in the mirror and sees a distinct bloody handprint with eerily long nails on her scrub shirt.

The Silence of the Alarms

Bill, the intern from Buffalo, is totally obsessed with cutaneous disease. He's constantly looking for interesting findings. But he crosses the line when he furtively wanders through random patients' rooms examining their skin. When he does so, he turns off the bed alarms, and several of his victims have ended up on the floor, with sentinel event fractures. Dr. Starling works in patient safety and is assigned the task of catching the epidermal perpetrator. But to do so, she has to get advice from a disgraced dermatologist, Dr. Lecter. Who will catch whom in this game of cat and mouse, and will the truth of Dr. Starling's congenital dermal nevus come to light?

The Blair Quality Project

A low-budget quality project goes awry. While working on a way to improve observed-to-expected mortality, three medical students create a computer algorithm that changes deceased patients' records and makes them appear to still be alive. This improves the observed mortality, but they never activate the program. The next time they meet, they discover that somebody has done so. The mortality figures improve, but that night, those patients that were actually dead, and now are alive in the records, come back to life as the undead. The only hope is to deactivate the program before it's too late. It's observed, but unexpected.