Thursday 12 January 2017

Perspective, by Antonia Senior

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?


Sally Zigmond said...

Fascinating post and get well soon, Antonia. I've had cellulitis and it's not nice. but where do I start with my Type I diabetes? I contracted it when I was 23, I was of course immediately diagnosed. Before insulin was discovered, I would have soon, grown skeletally thin due to my body not being able to use carbohydrate as fuel. I would have burned fat, been constantly dehydrated, been full of ketones (which gives a distinctive smell of pear drops and have died an unpleasant death. Enough of that. Three cheers for the Canadian duo, Drs Banting and Best and the constant (and free) care of the NHS.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sally, Yes - three cheers for the NHS, and lovely, lovely painkillers! Antonia

Susan Price said...

Hope you and your pet leg feel better soon, Antonia.
Thank you for a really engaging post, which I enjoyed.

Looking back at my life... Well, I had the usual childhood diseases but skated through them with the help of the NHS. If I'd been born even fifty years earlier, I might have been killed by any of them. Scarlet Fever, Measles and Diptheria are all infant killers without vaccination. Indeed my mother often ranted about fools who wouldn't have their children vaccinated and said that she would need to borrow a hand from someone else in order to count the number of children she had known, in her street and at school, who died of TB and diptheria.

I cut my thumb open as a teenager, while playing with a hunting knife. It was a very bad cut and an unclean knife. Blood poisoning might well have killed me in previous centuries.

Let us all remember the NHS with respect. I think it will soon be privatised and we will be back to those glorious Victorian Values, where medical care was only for those who could pay.

Spade and Dagger said...

Totally agree - we have so much to be grateful for with modern medicine & a Health System. Watching how it helps my family survive life threatening conditions, as well as the ones now considered trivial because we have antibiotics & minor surgery, I'm always glad to have been born in modern times & have no wish to time travel.
Hope you feel much better soon as cellulitis is miserable.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind wishes - and I'm already feeling much better! I agree about having no wish to time travel; I keep thinking about the cold snap we're having, too, and the miracle that is modern heating. How did people survive? And even if they survived, they had the misery of the constant cold. My Mother's stories of her childhood in Ireland in the 50s all seem to centre on who got to sit nearest the fire....