I regard the process of being anaesthetised as my personal leap in the dark, my bungy-jump-cum-sky-diving-cum-cliff-top moment. I clutch the hand of the usually compassionate (and one hopes, sublimely patient) nurse whom I have become accustomed to hear counting down from ten to one. This nurse is delivering platitudinous and sweet words betwixt and between her numerical climb down. There is a touch of irony here, as I often use the same counting-down procedure when leading a client into hypnosis: the descending deepener, to facilitate the state of hypnosis. I’ll be writing about the connection between hypnosis and anaesthesia in a future blog.
But I’m talking surgical knife as opposed to metaphorical knife in the back
If the nurse doesn’t count down then I most certainly do. I count aloud and it goes something like… “Ten nine eight… I’m still here… seven six five… I’m still here… I’m not asleep… and four… three…” Silence, I presume, Doctor! I am out for the count. None of us wants the knife stuck into us whilst awake. Okay so the metaphorical knife may be par for the course in contemporary life, but I am talking sharp, metallic instruments that are going to cause physical pain. It wasn’t always like this, as you learned in my blog for the night of Halloween. Anaesthesia was only invented in around 1775 by a young scientist called Humphry Davy. He discovered the anaesthetising effects of combining chlorine and iodine (nitrous oxide), also known as ‘Laughing Gas’. Davy discovered that nitrous oxide seemed to be capable of destroying physical pain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humphry_Davy
Give a dog a bone. Give a patient a Biting Stick
I wish you to conjure up in your imagination a time when there was nothing to knock you out other than alcohol ― generally rum, and occasionally opiates to satiate the pain. Aaagh! A good dose of alcohol, bands of restraint, and a biting stick were essential pain management tools. The natural instinct of a patient was to thrash around and a biting stick could support focus and presence during the long seconds it took to perform the amputation.
How do you fancy a trip to the theatre?
It was Open House Weekend in London, and the old Operating Theatre (1703) was on the wish-list to see. In awe and amazement I discovered that this was actually a theatre in the round. Trainee surgeons were called ‘cubs’, and sat in prime positions on the lower tiers. Their numbers were restricted to allow for the celebrity surgeon to closely attend to their tuition. As studies progressed a cub would progress to the hallowed status of ‘bear’. The operations, most regularly performed were amputations. They presented for the curious public a popular and well-attended performance and spectacle. To attend an operation was a recreational choice and hence ‘theatre-going’ attracted a wide audience. Behind the cubs stood men of the cloth (clergy), politicians, merchants, managers and many more, and so surgeons ‘played’ to a packed and scrutinising house.
The early days of sensuround and agonising sound?
This theatre-in-the-round, allowed for acute amplification and hence the surgeon’s words were projected loud and strong. This also incidentally amplified the vocal agony in what one might surmise was an early version of sensuround multimedia horror. The rich man at his castle the, poor man at his gate ― all faced operative procedures fuelled by drinking liberal quantities of unholy rum, bound to the operating table or the kitchen table. The rich opted to be operated on at home and so the kitchen was the scene of the saw. The poor patient, literally and metaphorically put up with the pain and the ‘audience’. The audience were not always the best behaved, and nor did they necessarily have the ‘stomach’ for the gore and the escaping blood. During its hey-day there was blood-in-buckets caught by a sawdust box beneath the operating table. And allegedly the polished surgical saw could relieve a patient of the offending limb in one minute or less. One St Thomas surgeon, John Flint South, a contemporary commentator, reported that there was the continually calling out, by the ‘theatre-goers’ of “Heads, Heads” to those around the operating table whose heads interfered with the action such was the surgical-sport.
Cleanliness is next to God but do you think it spared the patient?
Having endured the agony, and survived the saw, the odds of dying in the lap of the surgeon’s bloody frock-coat soaked in blood were high. Unwashed aprons were unknown culprits that contributed to certain grave death. And although cleanliness was a moral virtue, descriptions of the day, suggest that a surgeon was as likely to wash his hands after an operation as he was before. The familiar frock coats were, according to a contemporary, ‘stiff and stinking with pus and blood’. Blood was a badge of honour and the greater the splatter the greater the perceived surgeon’s experience and hence, hopefully, skill. The death rate was further heightened by the shock of the operation, and because operations took place as last resort, patients tended to lack reserves of strength to fight through.
Imagine operating on yourself!
You may well know someone who is eager to research on the internet and find meaning in temperature fluctuations and aches and pains. One wonders, what is this pale fascination with rooting out illness―with shaming and naming our perceived ills? We quite ruthlessly self-diagnose to unnecessarily worrying ends, and plan to self-medicate lacking knowledge and expertise. The hypochondriac needs no rest and apparently no sleep. So, to imagine that a surgeon could potentially self-operate to remove an appendix say, or gall stones beggars belief. This is what some stalwarts managed to do. You may say galling in the extreme.
Departing souls had a swift exit to God
The old Operating theatre is housed virtually within the dome of a church built at the end of the 17th century. The theatre is linked by a corridor to St Thomas’ Hospital next door. One can only pray that to this end, when a patient died upon the table in full view of their Surgeon and his audience, their soul could leave immediately to the light, being within the body of a house of God, and so close to heaven on high.
Thinking of going to the Theatre?
Book yourself a ringside seat. Summon your imagination and you’ll discover that this theater may well be the cheapest in London Town!