New York State In-depth

A Yankee Notebook: A Different Kind of Journey | weekend magazine

I had my first experience of surgery and general anesthesia in 1949 at the Children’s Hospital in Albany, New York. My grandfather, an old-fashioned pharmacist in Albany, probably had connections there; and my father, a minister, probably got a reduced rate. It was a simple, uncomplicated tonsillectomy, a procedure which, to my knowledge, is more cautiously recommended now than it was then. And at 14, I was a bit too old for both the surgery and the children’s hospital. My dad and I drove from Syracuse and checked myself in. I would relax in my old bedroom at my grandparents’ house.

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

But I digress; I started with general anesthesia. The surgeon at the hospital put me to sleep using a technique many modern day anesthesiologists have never heard of (I checked): an ether enema. This ancient miracle produced both of the effects you can imagine, partly I suppose because there was no fast that I can remember doing beforehand. I woke up very dizzy with a sore throat, belched aether gas (for several days), and was cleaned up by a very grumpy old nurse in a starched bat hat, whose mumbling made it clear she suspected me of the simulation.

Compare that to today’s smooth transitions in and out of unconsciousness. As your date approaches, you receive a call and text from a nurse on the surgical team, clarifying in very specific terms what you can and can’t do. Nothing incriminating at all: no eating after midnight the night before; no coffee that day or the day before (which borders on stressful); Wear clothes that are easy to take off and put on again. Show up at a certain hour ready to go and make sure you have a responsible driver for the drive home which, mirabile dictu, will be shortly after waking up.

I fasted as instructed; Forgoing my usual caffeinated eau de vie, I emerged in sweat 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 becomes more common as we age and becomes more acute when an arm is injured and likely to be maimed by such an event, bothered us both.

Check-in was quick and easy; Computers were way ahead of me. After just a few seconds in the waiting room, I was called into the ready room, whose double row of cubicles was privatized with sliding curtains. I stripped off my clothes lightly as instructed, donned the hateful Johnny, and sat back to await my fate – which soon arrived in the form of a kindly nurse who did a bit of vein-fishing and installed the anesthesia access tube. The anesthesiologist, a pleasant fellow who had never heard of an ether enema (I checked), described the joys of the hours ahead and disappeared. The surgeon, optimistic and ready, stopped to check my vital signs record and evaporated as well.

I remember traveling on a stretcher to a huge, well-lit operating room, where I helped people push me to the operating table. But nothing after that until I woke up again – sort of; my tongue didn’t quite do what I expected – back in my curtained cabin. Everything went 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 of shakiness in the recovery room, no nausea, and no disorientation — although it took at least one conversation to figure out where the heck I was (the neon lights were a clue).

Martha brought her car over; A nurse wheeled me out to the curb in my easy-to-wear clothes and we drove off. A little supper and then, although I had slept for some time, I went to the hay early. I didn’t even read the newspaper, as I usually do, before I got off.

The next morning, as I feared, it was time for a pill whose name begins with Oxy-. Then a surprise: a questionnaire asking about my experiences. You know the questions – wait time, friendliness of staff and finally, how likely am I to recommend this practice to a friend or family member. When everything has gone so smoothly, it’s hard to say anything in return but extravagant words. I would only add to my recommendation that my friend flees at the first whiff of ether aroma.

Willem Lange writes regularly for Weekender magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.

Willem Lange writes regularly for Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.

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