Sometimes, when I am ill, I play a game with myself, to curb excessive moping. How many times would I have died, had I live in ye olde days?
My current count is twice. Once when I had a blood clot in pregnancy which, if left untreated by blood thinners, would have broken up and whistled through my veins to my lungs, making me cough blood, breath thinly, and eventually die.
And now. Laid up in bed with my leg - my purple, sausagey, goosebumped travesty of a leg - in the air. I have cellulitis, a relatively common and treatable infection of the deep tissues of the skin and the subcutaneous fat layers. It's agonising, debilitating and bloody annoying. But I'm quaffing antibiotics and ibuprofen and the worst side effect is missing this fabulous book launch:
But the side-effect of cellulitis in the olden days was more serious than missing a bookish, boozy party. Left untreated, it can cause gangrene. Yes, I take my art as a historical novelist so seriously that I am flirting with gangrene. (Next, I'll pick up some tuberculosis, and possibly a light bout of plague).
Perspective is a tricky beast. We are all the centre of our own universe and the notion that other people have it tougher is too often met with a shrug.
Hence my game, as the antidote to moping. IT is a miracle that anyone survived the olden days. At least half of my Mum friends would have died in a violent and miserable childbirth without - sterile - medical help. Dead from the pre-eclampsias and the detached placentas and the infections picked up from the dirty, horrifying instruments shoved up inside agonised women. God help the women of St Kilda, who watched 80 per cent of their newborns shrivel and die - perhaps from thepractice of smearing sea bird oil on their cut umbilical cords.
And the pain our forebears suffered! I was weeping with pain from my small bout of cellulitis. Think of Samuel Pepys, and the level of pain from a bladder stone that made him choose possible death and the unimaginable, unanesthetized agony of cutting it out.
|The instruments used on poor Pepys|
If in doubt about the power of fiction to recreate the past and inject some perspective, read David Mitchell's brilliant novel: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Groet. His hero, Jacob, assists at a lithotomy - the operation suffered by Pepys. The writing is so gory, so exquisitely detailed that I hesitate to reproduce it here, in case you are eating.
This is one of the less gruesome bits: "Marinus asks Dr Maeno to hold the lamp close to the patient's groin and take up his scalpel. His face becomes the face of a swordsman.
Marinus sinks the scalpel into Gerritszoon's perinaeum.
The patient's entire body tenses like a single muscle."
Less gruesome, but equally memorable is Dr Maturin's operation on the gunner, Mr Day on the deck of the brig Sophie. He cements his reputation among the sailors for ever, when, as his Captain Jack Aubrey tells it, he "opened our gunner's skull, roused out the brains, set them to rights, stuffed them back in again..."
Lying here with my pet sausage leg, I've been searching for pre-drug remedies for inflamed joints. Some mention of heat and ice, which is all to the good. The Romans were fond of ivy poultices. I reach for the ibuprofen again - and thank whatever Gods may be that I live now. And near a chemist.
A short blog this month, as I am in pain and grumpy. But I'll end with this thought: how many times, dear readers, would you have died in ye olde days?