Slice of Life

updated 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DESPITE HIS 15 YEARS AS A PRACTICING surgeon, Dr. James Sehn nearly gasped when he lifted the bloody sheet the patient was clasping to his groin. It was 6 o'clock in the morning on June 23, and the 48-year-old urologist had been summoned to the emergency room of Prince William Hospital in Manassas, Va. There lay an uncannily calm John Wayne Bobbitt, 26, whose wife, Lorena, had severed his penis with a 12-inch kitchen knife—in retaliation, she told police, for his raping her. The wound, Sehn recalls, "was really awful to look at. There was really only a clot of blood left there at the base of the penis. He'd been amputated right at the body wall."

Following the attack, Lorena, 24, had roared away in the family car with her grisly trophy and hurled it into a grassy field. But shortly after Sehn began telling her husband that all he could do was sew up the wound, Lorena called police and told them where to look for the penis. Officers found it, packed it in ice and rushed it to the hospital.

Sehn's "sick, nauseous feeling" lasted only until he got busy under the surgical microscope. "Once you get immersed in the work, you put a lot of these other sorts of emotions to rest," he says. After more than nine hours of microsurgery, Dr. Sehn and Dr. David Berman, a plastic surgeon, succeeded in reattaching the organ.

People have been buzzing about the bizarre episode ever since, as much for its sexual politics as for Sehn and Berman's medical wizardry. Lorena, a Venezuelan immigrant, who works at a nail salon, told police that John came home drunk that night at 3 a.m., woke her up, stripped her, forced her to have sex and then fell asleep. "He didn't care about my feelings," she told police. After the assault, Lorena said, she went to the kitchen for water, spotted the knife and returned to the bedroom, where she roused and confronted her husband. When he dozed off again, she performed what headline writers later characterized as "the unkindest cut."

Overnight she was hailed by hundreds of sympathetic women as a kind of heroine in the battle between the sexes. Letters of support poured in from all over the country. On July 9, Lorena filed for divorce. In response, John, a former marine who had been working as a nightclub bouncer, has asked for a restraining order to prevent his wife from "molesting, harassing or...interfering" with him. Authorities have charged Lorena with malicious wounding and John with marital sexual abuse. John's attorney, Gregory Murphy, calls Lorena's claim of rape "outrageous and unsupportable."

No one has been more aware of the passions unleashed by the case than Dr. Sehn. A few days after the incident, he went to a cocktail party and was startled by what happened. "The women wanted to hear all the lurid details," he says. "I think women somehow fell empowered by what happened." Meanwhile, he adds, "The men withdrew into the opposite corner with their legs crossed."

But Sehn's celebrityhood was just beginning. Dozens of radio shows and newspapers have contacted him, and producers have called from Sally Jessy Raphaël's TV talk show and David Letterman's forthcoming late-night show on CBS. When Sehn asked if he could screen the Letter-man show's questions, the interest evaporated. Even Sehn's wife, Chris, got pulled into the spotlight. She had to leave her beauty salon in McLean, Va., after several customers angrily confronted her. "They were upset that the surgery had a happy result," says Sehn.

Thanks to him and to Dr. Berman, it has. Under the microscope, the doctors were able to identify and individually tag tiny arteries, veins and nerves, which they later sewed together using sutures the width of a hair strand. "It's like going scuba diving in a way," Sehn says. "You're in another plane of existence, another reality. The surgery was fun." Because nerves have not yet regenerated, Bobbin still has no sensation in his penis, but he can urinate normally. Sehn says Bobbitt has a "good chance" of regaining full sexual function, but that will be clearer in another six to eight months. Sehn would like to get back to normal too. For him that means a return to pros-tale operations, vasectomies and quiet nights perusing The Journal of Urology. "With a little luck," he says wistfully, "in a month or two this will all be forgotten."

BILL HEWITT
ROCHELLE JONES in Manassas

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