On the night of June 23, 1993, urologist Dr. Jim Sehn got a call from the hospital where he worked in suburban Manassas, Virginia. A man named John Wayne Bobbitt had arrived with an amputated penis, and Sehn was needed in the operating room. Of course, he had no idea that this evening would become a career-defining event, one that would be endlessly dissected in the press (with lots of puns, yes) for decades to come.
This week, a four-part Amazon documentary produced by Jordan Peele chronicles the night that Lorena Bobbitt, after allegedly suffering years of sexual assault and domestic abuse at the hands of her husband John, cut off his penis while he lay sleeping, and the media circus that ensued. But at the time, 25 years before Lorena Bobbitt’s legacy would be reappraised as more than just a tabloid punch line, Sehn had no way of knowing what a sensation this story would become. He wasn’t focused on the cultural and symbolic implications of a man’s severed penis, but on the complex task of reattaching it to his body; after all, he had a job to do, and time was of the essence.
In light of his appearance in the new series, Sehn, who worked with plastic surgeon David Berman to reattach the penis, reflects on the hours-long procedure and the publicity storm that followed.
Take me through what happened that night.
I was the unlucky urologist on call that night in my hospital. At 4 in the morning when Bobbitt arrived holding a sheet over his groin, the missing part was usual urological territory, so that’s why I got called. I was on my way into the emergency room, not knowing much about the case other than that the patient had presented with an amputation of the penis, and at that point in time the organ, the whereabouts of the organ, was completely unknown, so thinking it through on the way into the hospital it looked like I would be doing nothing more than what we call a perineal urethrostomy — in other words, converting to a female plumbing system, which is a pretty brief and quick operation. It wasn’t until I got into the emergency room that I got a call from the police department that the organ had been found.
What went through your mind when they told you they’d found the penis?
Well, I thought: Terrific, we’ve got a real operation to do now, provided that it was in good condition, and it turned out to be. It came in a hot dog bag on ice from the 7-Eleven where it had been retrieved, from the field where she had tossed it out her car window. It came in, as they say, on ice, and it was very recently amputated, obviously, so we thought we had a good chance to replant it. I gave [plastic surgeon] Dave Berman a call, who had just come to Manassas that month, and I certainly needed his help. Urologists don’t generally replant organs. We’re not trained to do vessels that small, and really, they are just amazingly small. It’s all microscopic work. But Dave was happy to come in for the day, and by 8 o’clock that morning we were in the operating room. Took us about nine hours to do the case and it all went really very nicely and the day just went by so quickly. When we took off the tourniquet at the end of the case […] there was great blood flow. The organ was pink and doing well and we thought we had a chance to save it.
In the documentary, you say that none of the law enforcement who showed up at the scene wanted to handle it.
What happened — whoever in law enforcement found it wouldn’t touch it. The law-enforcement people wouldn’t touch it. They called an EMS squad because they knew those guys always had gloves, and they stood around staring at it, until the ambulance came up and gloves were obtained from the ambulance and they finally had the courage to pick it up, if you can imagine that, and carry it in with gloved hands into the 7-Eleven to put it in the hot dog bag on ice.
What condition was it in? Was it grassy and dirty when you guys got it?
Uh, well it was certainly contaminated in the field. It wasn’t grossly contaminated. A dog hadn’t chewed on it and nobody had stepped on it. It wasn’t damaged in any serious way, and luckily, I mean, it’s always good to keep these items on ice, which it was, so we had it washed up and cleaned up pretty quickly in the OR.
You’ve seen countless penises in your work. Did you react when you saw the severed organ for the first time?
Of course. I had never seen an injury quite this gruesome before in urology. It’s just a really unique moment and you can’t help but get a wrenching feeling in your gut to see it. It’s really horrifying. Though you quickly recover, as a surgeon. We do a lot of trauma, and you do what needs to be done.
What was the window in which you guys could reattach it?
Well, of course there’s no real information on that in the literature, but there had been replantations of organs that were well-preserved for well over 10, 12 hours. I knew we were well within that window. I never doubted that we had a good chance of success. I had never done another surgery like that and never since; it’s extremely rare. There was an epidemic of wives emasculating their husbands in Thailand in the late ’70s and the general surgeon in Thailand had done his best to replant these organs but he did not have the access to a microscope or microvascular technique and most of those organs were not successfully replanted. It was a miracle that any were survived because apparently the wives were taking these amputations and tossing them under their houses where the ducks would eat them. It really wasn’t until microvascular technique was proposed and successfully performed in Tokyo that we knew how to get the operation done properly.
When you saw him for the first time and saw what had happened, did you give any thought to why this might have been done or who had done it? Was that running through your head at all?
It honestly wasn’t. I had very little interest in the backstory. I just had a job to do. Obviously, anyone would surmise that something really terrible happened in a domestic situation. We didn’t know and we didn’t really need to know.
Tell me a little about the media circus in the immediate aftermath. I know that you were inundated with requests to appear on TV and give interviews. What was that whole experience like?
It really stopped my life for a little while because we even had European magazines like Der Spiegel in my office and constant interest from radio stations all over the country. The Letterman show had called, they wanted me to go up to New York, and I thought, that would be the last place a country doctor would want to be, so I did not go. That would be a nightmare, quite honestly. I was really pretty cautious about it at that level because there was so much prurient interest, and you know, as you go through, as you talk about this topic, it’s amazing how many land mines there are. There’s so many double entendres in the language that have suddenly come into play. The whole thing can just break into complete comedy, which is okay at a certain level, but my interest is not in being entertaining. I was hoping to keep it on a higher plane. You know, Howard Stern was very much into it, and I tried to shy away from that. All that really kind of took the whole thing down for me.
What do you mean, took it down?
There you go again, there’s another pun. I just think the whole thing could just become ludicrous and that did the whole situation an injustice at several levels. You know, it ignored the real pain and the suffering that these two people had experienced and inflicted on each other. I can tell you the very next day after it happened there was a media lawyer in the hospital who managed to sign John up. So they were all over him like bees on honey because they could smell a profit.
The other thing that was really disappointing for me was that as soon as John signed up with the media attorneys, there was an attorney that was hired who immediately took John to federal district court in Alexandria and Chapter 11’ed all of his debts. That meant all the care he got at our hospital — and we’re not a wealthy hospital, we’re a suburban hospital — all of his debts went into bankruptcy, so even though $6 million was made on the porn films, none of those bills for John’s medical care were ever paid. The hospital and all of the other doctors and nurses were given nothing. [Editor’s note: When Bobbitt filed for bankruptcy in 1993, his medical debt was discharged, leaving his legal expenses to be paid from future earnings.]
You guys never got paid for that?
We never got paid a nickel, because all of his debts going forward, from the time of his injury, were subject to bankruptcy action. I think it’s very sad. He’s spent his whole life trying to get some of that back, from what I understand. I’m sure, you know, he’s been given a pittance.
He’s not a nice guy, though.
Well, he’s not a nice guy, but he’s also not a smart guy, particularly, and he’s been abused. I think they both have been abused, for the benefit of their handlers. And I think that’s a sad comment on the avarice and greed that seems to propel a lot of what happens in our society.
What did you think about when you heard John was doing pornography and making money off of that?
Well, I wasn’t surprised, given the media circus and what was going on with “The Howard Stern Show.” I think that’s the way of the world.
A credit to your work, perhaps?
At a certain level, it’s pretty unusual when we have a good result, to have it get advertised in that way. So I’m glad that it did go well. I was disappointed in, I think it was the second porn film, Frankenpenis, that the surgical result was seriously damaged by liposuction and some kind of an enhancement procedure. I’ve never seen that film, but apparently it led to a lot of scar tissue. So it was a mixed progression.
As Jordan Peele said in the New York Times piece about Lorena that came out recently, despite the very serious issues of abuse in this case, there’s always going to be an element of comedy about it. To what extent are you able to laugh about it when you talk about it with friends or colleagues?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve got a couple favorites. There was one very funny one that might have been on a late-night show. So apparently when she tossed the organ out her car window, the joke goes that it went flying back and hit the windshield of two guys driving behind her on Route 28 in Manassas and one guy said to the other, What kind of a bug was that just hit the windscreen? And the other one said, I don’t know what kind of a bug it was, but it had the biggest dick I’ve ever seen.