A Yankee Notebook, Columns

My First Experience

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – My first experience with surgery and general anesthesia occurred in 1949, at the so-called Children’s Hospital in Albany, N.Y. My grandfather, an old-fashioned Albany apothecary, probably had connections there; and my father, a clergyman, probably got a reduced rate. It was a simple, straightforward tonsillectomy, a procedure that I understand is recommended more cautiously nowadays than it was then. And at 14, I was a little old for both the operation and the Children’s Hospital. My father and I drove from Syracuse and checked me in. I would recover in my old bedroom at my grandparents’ house.

Looking back from the vantage point of almost three-quarters of a century, I appreciate now the 19th-century appearance of the place: high ceilings, dark woodwork, faux-Tiffany overhead lights converted from gas. It’s long gone now, a victim of Governor Rockefeller’s much-reviled modernization of downtown Albany in the 1960s. Charles Dickens would have recognized and loved it.

But I digress; I started out with general anesthesia. The surgeon at the hospital put me to sleep with a technique that many modern anesthesiologists have never heard of (I’ve checked): an ether enema. This ancient marvel produced both effects you’d imagine, partly, I suppose, because there was no fasting that I can recall beforehand. I woke up very groggy with a very sore throat, burping ether gas (for several days), and being cleaned up by a very grumpy old nurse in a starched batwing cap whose mutterings made it clear she suspected me of malingering.

Contrast that with today’s smooth transitions into and out of unconsciousness. As your date approaches, you get a phone call and a text from a nurse on the surgical team that in quite certain terms makes it clear what you can do and what you’re forbidden to. Nothing onerous at all: no food after midnight the night before; no coffee that day or the day before (which borders on the onerous); wear clothing that’s easily removed and easily put back on. Show up ready to go at an appointed hour and be sure to have a responsible driver for the trip home, which, mirabile dictu, will be shortly after you wake up.

I fasted as directed; I abstained from my customary caffeinated eau de vie, and showed up in sweats and clogs, ready to go. My daughter Martha was my driver, and would spend the night in my guest room just in case. The fear of falling, which grows more likely to happen with advancing age and especially acute when one arm is injured and would probably be muckled by such an event, was on both our minds.

Check-in was swift and easy; the computers were way ahead of me. After only a few seconds in the waiting room, I was called into the ready room, with its double row of cubicles privatized with sliding curtains. I doffed my duds easily as directed, donned the hateful johnny, and settled back to await my fate, which soon arrived in the form of a friendly nurse, who fished around a bit for a vein, and installed the access tube for the anesthesia. The anesthesiologist, a pleasant person who’d never heard of an ether enema (I checked), described the delights of the coming hours, and disappeared. The surgeon, upbeat and ready, stopped to check the record of my vital signs, and also vaporized.

I remember the trip on a gurney to a huge, well-lighted operating room, helping the people there slide me over to the operating table. But nothing after that, until I reawoke, sort of; my tongue wouldn’t quite do what I expected it to, back in my curtained cubicle. All had gone perfectly, I was assured, and as soon as I felt like it, I could ask for help, get dressed, and go home. That was it. No hours shivering in the recovery room, no nausea, and no disorientation, though it took at least one conversation to figure out where the hell I was (the fluorescent lights were a cue).

Martha brought her car ’round; a nurse wheeled me out to the curb in my easily donned clothing, and we were off. A little supper and then, even though I’d spent some time asleep already, I hit the hay early. I didn’t even get through the newspaper, as is my wont, before dropping off.

Next morning, just as I’d feared, it was time for a pill whose name begins with oxy-. Then a surprise: a questionnaire asking about my experience. You know the questions: waiting time, friendliness of the staff, and last, how likely I might be to recommend that practice to a friend or family member. It’s hard when everything has gone so smoothly to respond in any but extravagant terms. I’d only add to my recommendation that my friend flee at the first hint of the aroma of ether.

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