One of the things I have in common with my Grandmother Eveline is that we both got sick a lot during our first year of school. Eveline wrote in her school paper “Autobiography” that if it were not for her teacher spending extra time with her, she would have had to repeat the grade.
Eveline didn’t say what illnesses put her to bed, but for me, it was numerous upper respiratory infections which inevitably led to ear infections. Vicks Vapo-Rub and St. Joseph’s baby aspirin were always on hand to ease my symptoms. The ear infections were the worst. I remember lying on Eveline’s couch, holding my hand over my ear and crying because of the pain. She would warm olive oil and use a dropper to put the oil in my ear. It did help to soothe the pain, but it would take several miserable days for the pain to go away.
In the 1950s, the treatment for frequent illnesses like mine was to remove your tonsils. Ether was the anesthetic of choice. I have no fond memories attached to this experience. Here’s how I remember it….
We went for a drive and ended up at the hospital. We rode an elevator. I learned that I was there for something more than a joy ride. I was promised ice cream. I was worried, but looked forward to the ice cream with great anticipation.
My next memory is in the operating room, lying on my back. People wearing masks hovered over me and covered my nose and mouth with something that smelled awful. I was told to count to ten. I couldn’t move my arms or legs and couldn’t get away. I turned my head back and forth to get away from that awful thing covering my face. I tried holding my breath. I struggled and struggled. I was terrified.
Another girl and I had been taken to the operating room at the same time. My mom became concerned when the other girl came out of surgery and I didn’t. After what seemed to my mom like a long time, I was finally brought to the recovery room. The problem, of course, was that I had fought the anesthesia, delaying my surgery.
Awake and in my hospital room, my reward arrived – a bowl of vanilla ice cream! I dug in and took my first bite – and with that first bite I knew that I had been deceived. My throat hurt. It was hard to swallow. The ice cream tasted like blood. I had consoled myself with the promise of ice cream. It had been a big lie. No one had told me that I wouldn’t be able to actually enjoy the ice cream.
The only good thing that happened as a result of my surgery was that my grandmother didn’t make me eat the crusts of my bread for the next couple of weeks.
Several years ago, I had to have a root canal. The doctor and his assistant began to work over my face, putting blocks and shields and whatever inside and over my mouth. After a few minutes, the doctor stopped working and kindly said that we should do this on another day and that he would prescribe something to help me relax. He had seen the panic in my eyes. It was at that moment that I realized the genesis of my fears. I was right back in that operating room. Masks. People hovering over my face, putting things into and over my mouth. How could I escape???
My five-year-old self had been reliving those minutes of terror for fifty years, and I didn’t realize it until my experience with the root canal.
Now I got it….the claustrophobia….the panicky need to know that there is an easy escape….the fear of not being able to breathe….why darkness sometimes closes in on me…
I did a quick search to see if anyone else ties their anxieties to having a tonsillectomy or if I’m just weird. Sure enough, I am not alone. There was even an anesthesiologist who related his panic attack in an elevator to his tonsillectomy. Here are a few quotes:
The strong smell of ether frightens many patients…
…reassures the patient that they are not being suffocated
…there may be some struggling…
…the patient’s eyes were covered with gauze and a rubber protector while the anesthetist dripped ether over the mask……
…At four years of age she had experienced hospital trauma, when she was held down by doctors and nurses during a tonsillectomy with ether anesthesia…
…I can still smell the rubber mask and the sickly smell of the ether. I feel nauseated as I type this, my heart starts pounding, my hands are shaking…
So now I look back and I understand how some really innocuous things have made me panic and why anxiety is so close to the surface of my emotions.
I still prefer stairs over elevators and it’s doubtful that I will ever go on a cruise….. you can’t just walk away from a boat in the middle of the ocean. It’s going to be difficult to manage a flight to Europe, even though it’s something I really want to do. But at least I know why.
I’m glad the medical profession has made some progress since my childhood. My kids got taken back to the operating room in a little red wagon pulled by a purple kangaroo!