Day 118. Surgery

In December 2012 on December 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm


Surgery delivered my children, mended my mother’s back, repaired my brother’s eye, removed cancers from my grandfather (twice – lung and stomach) and grandmother (breast), investigated abdominal pain in my sister, and set straight an irregular heartbeat in my Dad.

So far, so good.

A couple of centuries ago things were a little different, explains Atul Gawande in a freely available New England Journal of Medicine article Two Hundred Years of Surgery.

If you managed to survive the pain experience and associated shock of surgery back then, there was a good chance an infection introduced by the surgeon himself would soon do you in.

Although personal recounts of historical surgical experiences are rare, author Atul quotes Professor George Wilson’s written description of his own ankle surgery performed in 1843:

The horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close on despair, which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart, I can never forget, however gladly I would do so. During the operation, in spite of the pain it occasioned, my senses were preternaturally acute, as I have been told they generally are in patients in such circumstances. I still recall with unwelcome vividness the spreading out of the instruments: the twisting of the tourniquet: the first incision: the fingering of the sawed bone: the sponge pressed on the flap: the tying of the blood-vessels: the stitching of the skin: the bloody dismembered limb lying on the floor.

Anaesthesia and infection control, whilst resisted by the surgeons at first as ‘fads’ and ‘unsound’, were eventually embraced, and allowed abdominal surgery, cathaterisation and more the sophisticated techniques that we know today to be developed.

For more anecdotes, have a look at the original article, one of many recommended by @ben_hr for the December 8 edition of Weekend Long Reads.

[image thanks to Official US Navy Imagery on flickr]


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