Whoever invented the scalpel was a mastermind, though whoever invented anesthesia, well darling, you win without a fight. This was brought home to me last night as I began AN Wilson’s historical novel The Potter’s Hand, which opens with a scene where Josiah Wedgewood has his leg amputated without benefit of either. Instead he’s gagged, held down, and gone at with a saw. By Charles Dawin’s father, no less.
Not long ago a hospital registrar asked me what surgeries I’d had. How long have you got, I joked? As a kid I had my tonsils and adenoids removed. When I was thirty I had my nose renovated. In 1995 my appendix exploded and had to be scraped out (along with several varieties of exotic flora, including gangrene). I had a haemangioma the size of a small grapefruit removed from my left lower back. I had an ileostomy bag installed to combat the worst symptoms of Crohn’s disease. A few years later the surgeon went back to remove it and reconnect my small intestine.
That does not even account for all my hospitalisations for an assortment of entertaining ailments. By rights I should have my own line of hospital gowns, yet I persist in thinking of myself as the most robust sick person around. That’s either a serious case of denial or a serious case of mental health. What some call “positive mental attitude”, and what my doctors surely refer to as intractability in my hospital notes.
Every time I am put under anesthesia I think, “This could be it.” And every time I awaken I’m grumpy. The worst of it hits two days later, when depression whomps me with the force of a punch in the head from Mike Tyson. I don’t know the medical reasons, but it happens so reliably that I’ve learned to ride it out. Everything, even awful stuff like waking up with a tail of small intestine protruding from your gut, is more manageable on day three.
In my experience surgeons are – oh, how shall I put this delicately? Is cocksure a softer word than arrogant? (All my surgeons have been male, as it happens.) I’m a fairly chatty, interactive patient. I do my research and have informed opinions about my healthcare. As a rule I don’t enjoy having my intelligence insulted, and even laid out on a gurney I’ve been known to open up a fresh mouth to a patronising doctor.
That said, it finally occurred to me that I want my surgeon to be an arrogant son (or daughter) of a bitch. If someone’s standing over me with a sharp knife ready to plunge in and rearrange things, I do not want dithering. “Gosh, should I cut here or here?” On the contrary, I want damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead decisiveness. I would not be writing this otherwise.
I am a great believer in the importance of preventive medicine. It stands to reason that fewer cigarettes and units of alcohol, more vegetables and exercise, are top tips for promoting longevity and quality of life. But sometimes more aggressive measures are required, and thus far I am unconvinced by psychic surgery.
So let’s offer up thanks to the men and women who dedicate their lives to moving us away from hacksaws and bullet biting. Mothers and Fathers of Invention, I salute you. (For your next trick, can you figure out how to banish keloid scars? Thanks ever so.)