Medical Mirth from the Dark Ages.

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Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine via Compfight


It’s been a while since I posted a Memorable Moments instalment for my blogging a book project. The holiday season as a temporary bachelor, coping with a house full of hungry cats, trying to remember cooking instructions and the rest of life’s routine have kept me busy.

Thank goodness Sue returns next week and as long as the cats survive another week, life will miraculously get back to normal.

Today I stumbled on a hilarious guest post by Cindy Brown on the Firepole Marketing blog. Cindy publishes her own humourous blog Everyday Underwear. A warning, although not in the slightest smutty, she does find humour in some “earthy” subjects.

When I recovered from laughing at some of her writing, I remembered an episode from many years ago that is funnier in recollection than it was at the time.

In the early seventies and recently married, I experienced intermittent abdominal pains. Sometimes severe enough to cause me to double over in agony, a dull ache at others. I had all the usual tests, including barium meal x-ray, gastroscopy (most undignified)  without the doctors reaching any conclusion.

When they found nothing from looking up the bottom end, they proposed sticking a tube down my throat while I was awake and looking from the top. This was well before the invention of LED powered lighting devices, instruments designed for patient comfort, or even a sympathetic concern for patient’s fears.

The instrument in question looked as large as an old-fashioned bicycle tube pump. To add to my terror, my wife at the time had been a nurse and scared me to death with tales of patients gagging and choking during the procedure.

Fortunately (as it turned out) my condition got worse and the doctors decided to “open me up and have a look” as they accurately but rather bluntly described the surgical procedure of a laparotomy.

The operation went well, they found and removed an infected and weeping appendix, attended to some glands that had become infected as a consequence of the weeping ( I was lucky that it had not burst) and sewed up a cut that stretched from just below my navel to an area dangerously close to some sensitive parts. The longest appendectomy scar I have ever seen and complimented by a double hernia repair years later, a good replica of a ships anchor.

The fun part of this story started the next morning.

This was in Salisbury, Rhodesia before the new hospital had been constructed. I was in the men’s surgical ward of a very old hospital, I think built between the two World Wars,  possibly earlier. The ward was as big as a barn, had rows of steel beds down each wall with a small locker next to each bed. No screens. Privacy could only be provided when really necessary, by a nurse wheeling a set of screens on wheels around a bed.

There were many beds on each of the long walls, I think 12 each side. There were doors at each end, permanently open to provide relief from the heat. Air conditioning had not reached government buildings in that part of the world. One wall had windows opening onto a wide verandah where patients who could walk sat during the day.

This was during the terrorist war, on my right was a young regular soldier who had been shot twice through the chest. Just a week after being wounded, he no longer had dressings on his wounds and walked around in a pair of shorts proudly displaying enough stitches to resemble a railway shunting yard on his back where the bullets had passed through him creating huge exit wounds.

He was more interested in chatting up the nurses and visiting their lounge where there was a TV than resting and recuperating. He never complained, such was the resilience of youth.

On my left was an elderly man who had undergone extensive surgery, he never recovered and died after a few days.

Opposite and slightly to one side of me was an older man with a broad Scottish accent, a sense of humour and a talent for relating the most intricate and gory details of his surgical experiences.

The morning after my surgery, I woke up from the lingering effects of a sedative feeling quite good until I tried to sit up or turn over in bed. I lay there for a while wondering how long I could put off going to the bathroom and how I was going to manage getting out of the high bed with a stomach full of stitches and no step-ladder.

My wonder was soon ended by a very short but very determined nurse telling me that I was to get out of bed immediately and go and bath. I told her that a bath was out of the question as I had just undergone major surgery, that I needed help getting out of bed. She told me that either I went on my own or she would physically get me in the bath and bathe me.

I might have been raised in the hippy era, but the idea of a strange woman bathing me in that context was sufficient motivation for me to grit my teeth, sit up and stagger doubled over, clutching my stomach, towards the bathroom. As a reward, my tormentor the nurse, said she would not come and check on me unless I rang the bell to call for help in getting out of the bath. There was no way I was going to ring that bell.

The designated ward comedian, the older Scottish guy started cheering and clapping as I neared his bed, he got all the patients at that end of the ward to join in. I found out exactly how painful it was trying to laugh and hold my stomach together after a major abdominal incision. That made me forever sympathetic towards women who have had a Caesarian section delivery.

It got better, but with more humour.

The hospital wards had parquet floors, hardwood blocks about 6″ x 2″ and 3/4″ deep. Because the building was old, many of the blocks had become dry and loose. They clicked together noisily when the nurses walked through the ward. Before the old man on my left died, a relative had brought him a bottle of orange juice. He knocked it over in the night and the contents spread over an area of floor next to my bed.

When my wife visited later that day, she stepped in the congealed orange juice, when she stepped away, she had a floor block stuck to each foot, she almost fell over. I tried hard not to laugh, both to avoid the pain and because she did not have a sense of humour.

In those days, hospitals did not rush patients out as is the trend today – probably a good trend in view of some of the strange bugs hospitals seem to breed. My wife was kept in the maternity home for 5 days after an uncomplicated delivery. I think I was there a week. Shortly before I left and before I was able to laugh without doubling over in pain, our Scottish friend related the story of his haemorroid surgery.

The operation was performed in the same hospital and he was in the same ward, but at the opposite end to the bathroom. Still groggy from the anaesthetic, he staggered down the aisle to hoots of laughter from the other patients. They were shouting that he was losing his vital organs. He looked over his shoulder at what he thought were his intestines trailing behind him and almost had a heart attack. His screams alerted the nurse, who when she had recovered from her own laughter told him that the doctor had neglected to inform him that after that type of surgery, the orifice was packed with gauze bandage.

What he thought were his entrails were only a stray length of bloody bandage coming adrift.

That little story almost had me bursting all my stitches.

The final chapter in that episode came the day after leaving hospital. My brother was away on military call-up and had left his car for me to look after with the request that I use it to keep the battery charged. This will ring a bell with you if you grew up in the baby boomer generation in Europe or a country supplied with British cars. The car was a Ford Cortina GT. Red with a black stripe, lowered suspension, “fat” tyres and a loud exhaust.

For some reason that day, my wife used the car, got around the corner from the house and stalled it, the battery was too flat for another start so there I was clutching my stomach with one hand and pushing the car with the other.

Things were certainly different then.




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  1 comment for “Medical Mirth from the Dark Ages.

  1. Roberta
    January 5, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Very interesting and humorous reminiscences. More interesting is the look back at what and how health care used to be. I couldn’t help but wonder if we will go backwards here in the states under ObamaCare.

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