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Posts Tagged ‘surgery’

Medical Literature

June 13, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Frances d’Arblay (“Fanny Burney”) by Edward Francisco Burney, ca. 1785.

Today marks the birthday of the English novelist and playwright Fanny Burney, born in 1752, whose Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer were all major sensations in her day. Hers were satirical novels—often now called proto-Austenian—which were highly regarded by contemporary critics as well as readers.

Burney wrote one of the earliest accounts of a mastectomy—her own—which she was, horrifyingly, awake enough to observe. The operation was performed by “7 men in black, Dr. Larrey, M. Dubois, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Aumont, Dr. Ribe, & a pupil of Dr. Larrey, & another of M. Dubois”—the latter of whom was considered the number-one doctor in France. Warning: the account, taken from a letter to her sister, gets a little gory, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But Burney did survive, until 1840, at least. Of course, we can't be sure she really had cancer: she had pains in her breast, but in the absence of a biopsy, it’s hard to know.

I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead—& M. Dubois placed me upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel—I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. Yet— when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast—cutting through veins—arteries—flesh—nerves—I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision—& I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still, so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. I concluded the operation was over—Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed—& worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered—Again all description would be baffled—yet again all was not over,—Dr. Larry rested but his own hand, & — Oh heaven!—I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone—scraping it!

 

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Chasing Away the Big Black Bird

May 21, 2014 | by

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Image: Richard Crossley

My buddy at work—I call him my buddy, but really he’s just the guy I hate the least—turned to me and asked which would be better: having one testicle or having three. I rolled my eyes and gave him the same answer I gave him every time he asks: three. I’d rather be creepy than a little sad.

Then one night in the shower I discovered that my left testicle was the size and density of a small Cadbury Creme Egg. The doctor told me my testicle needed to come out immediately; it was malignant as hell. He probably did not actually say the words “malignant as hell,” but I went into shock almost immediately, and can only reconstruct events based on what happened next.

Twenty-four hours later, I was entering emergency surgery. The nurse asked if I’d like a prosthetic. “Would I!” I said. “Can I get two?” I was thinking of how awesome would it be to really double down and commit to this joke, surprising my work friend in the men’s room.

I also have a difficult relationship with my Virginian heritage—it would be perfect if I could have an actual Civil War–era musket ball put in there instead, to literally carry a heavy, awkward, and slowly poisonous reminder of our nation’s tragic past that I only talk openly about with my black friends when I am drunk.

But none of that happened. As it turned out, I wasn’t going to be creepy. I was going to be sad. Read More »

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This Is Spinal Fusion

October 30, 2013 | by

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The doctor asks you to bend down, then waddle a few steps as he watches you. You might be ten but could be fourteen, at the pediatrician or in the school nurse’s office, probably a girl but maybe a boy. It might be the last item on a long checklist of routine things: height, weight, blood pressure, pulse, and temperature, check; vision and hearing, check; mumps vaccine, chickenpox history, tetanus shot, check; then, finally, the duck-walk diagnostic test.

Me, I was in the school gym. I’d waited with friends for my turn in the locker room with the doctor who’d volunteered to give physicals for the middle-school athletes. He knew my mother, so we made polite conversation between routine questions. Then, he asked me to bend and take a few steps. I did so, staring at the cracked concrete beneath my bare feet. When I was allowed to straighten, I could see that the doctor’s face had changed completely.

Locked on my torso, his now-serious eyes ticked left-right-left-right, then fixed on the planes and angles of my shoulders and hips. Trusting that I trusted him, the doctor placed one of his hands on my shoulder and his other hand on my hip. After a moment, one of his hands moved to my back and traced the misaligned knobs of my spine. That sensation, a man’s hand running down my spine impersonally, as if I were no more animate than a mannequin or cadaver, would become very familiar to me.

Scoliosis curves your spine into an S, a biological scarlet letter glaringly visible by X-ray but also perceptible to the naked eye. Read More »

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People Will Always Be Kind

May 21, 2013 | by

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Like everyone else on the planet, it took me no time at all to read and form an opinion about Angelina Jolie’s recent New York Times op-ed about her preventative double mastectomy, a heartfelt piece out of which one phrase in particular struck me: “I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

Well of course you don’t; of course it doesn’t! I said to myself, Why on earth should it? Then I remembered the rest of the world, that vast population of people who don’t think exactly like me. It has always fascinated me to know that there are people—quite a few, in fact—to whom gender appears such a slippery property, able to be driven away by an initiative taken in the interest of physical health. What a fickle thing gender must seem to the people who actually like it!

I remembered a piece on the same subject, detailing a writer’s inability to find comfort in books after undergoing a preventative mastectomy. I’d read it a couple months before I had my own double mastectomy performed, and returned to it after the procedure was done, surprised on the second read to find how strongly and almost guiltily I still identified with it, despite the crucial differences between the author’s case and mine: that my procedure was not preventative, but elective, therefore less invasive; that I had no cancer to speak of; that my postsurgical period of aversion to books was not due to the pain of new absence, but a realization that most of the books I loved were written by people who couldn’t have comprehended or anticipated me, a person who had breasts but didn’t want them—and that suddenly this was important. In the druggy, dazed few weeks after surgery, it was extremely important to me to be anticipated, to be taken into account by the literature of the past. It was important for there to exist a body of work dealing with the peculiar sensation of waking up after a much dreamed-of, longed-for procedure and seeing the faces of one’s family, peering down into the frame of one’s vision like Terry Gilliam characters, and wearing a uniform expression that could not be farther removed from the joy of one’s own. It was important to read something about the strange problem of being approached, in the months before the surgery, by others for whom breasts had taken on a significant, largely symbolic meaning and who as such felt entitled to express their concern and disdain at the pending loss of my own. (“You have to understand,” I was told during some family fight or other, “that it’s a radical action.”) It was an urgent problem that nothing related to the exact moment I was living, that I had instead to content myself with Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male with its descriptions of persecution, pain, and delirium, which I read during recovery, somewhat defeatedly, and while delirious.

But the person for whom Angelina Jolie’s piece was doing more than stating the obvious was a person I had never really anticipated. And very likely, they are just as unaware of me. We are moving around in the same world, as close to opposites as two groups of people can be, and the fact of it seems almost absurd: that there are women who fear that something will happen in life to make them forcibly lose their gender, while those of us who are desperate to lose it can’t give it away with a set of china. Read More »

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