Recently, I wrote an essay for The Sun Magazine about the consequences of an operation I had when I was five. (The first part of the essay is available online. The complete version is in the printed magazine.)
The operation was a tonsillectomy, for which I was given anesthesia with open-drop ether. In those days, the original nineteenth-century technique for handling children in an operating room still prevailed: Say nothing. Take them by surprise and hold them down.
One ramification of that operation is that I became an anesthesiologist (my day job.) I developed my own ideas about how to be with kids in scary situations.
The world has changed since my tonsillectomy. The need to communicate with children isn’t news. But here’s something I’ve learned as a physician that’s just as important:
Children will react as their parents do.
A mother or father who can’t handle their own turmoil will teach a young child that the world is a threatening place. Calm, empathetic parents tell the child that she’ll live to see another day.
It’s one thing to know this as a doctor. It’s another matter entirely to put it into practice as a parent. This was underscored for me recently when I came home from work to find that Nick had been attacked by a rose bush.
He lay moaning on the couch. One of his hands pressed an ice pack to his head. The thumb of the other hand was in his mouth. Nora stood by, her face white.
“Nick ran into the rose bushes without looking,” she said. “He cut his head on a thorn.”
“Okay, let’s see.”
I found an inch-and-a-half gash in Nick’s scalp. It was oozing blood. I couldn’t tell how deep the cut was, but it looked respectable. Nick’s squirming prevented me from probing the wound.
“Dada, am I going to die? Do I need an operation?” Many, many tears.
“Nick, it’s going to be okay. Mommy and I will take care of you. We’re going to the emergency room. The doctor there knows just what to do.”
Nick managed to hold it together until we were in the car. Then he started to lose it. Then I started to lose it.
“It’s going to hurt,” he said.
“We’re going to have it looked at,” I said. “The doctor will do what needs to be done.”
“But what if I need an operation? What if they have to sew it up?”
“They’ll give you a local. You won’t feel the stitches.”
“What’s a local?”
“It’s a shot to numb you up.”
“How can a shot in the arm numb it up?”
“It’s not a shot in the arm. They inject your scalp around the cut.”
“They give you a shot in the head?”
Pandemonium in the back seat. Now Nick was ringing his hands and tearing his hair.
“Maybe Nick doesn’t need to hear all this,” Nora said.
What on earth was I doing?
I was acting calm, but I wasn’t really calm, not on the inside. I couldn’t stand Nick being so terrified, couldn’t stand to look at it. So I tried to argue him out of his terror. Instead of taking care of him, I took care of me. Which left him all alone.
“You’re finding all this scary,” I said at last. But empathy had come too late.
“I’m not going in there,” Nick said when we arrived.
“Nick,” I said, “Your choice is walking in or being carried.”
He walked, whimpering, with Nora’s arm around him.
My friend Dave was on call that night. With sureness, patience and tenderness, Dave cleaned Nick’s scalp and applied antibiotic ointment.
“He’s current on tetanus?” Dave said.
Thank God, Nick had been immunized.
“It’s superficial,” said Dave. “Ointment twice a day. It’ll close right up.”
“I don’t need an operation?” said Nick.
“Nope. We’re done.”
In the car on the way home, Nick asked me what superficial meant.
“It means just a scratch,” I said.
“You said too much to me, dada.”
I had a vision of carrying him struggling into that emergency room. It was not unlike the memory of myself on that long-ago operating table.
“I know, Nick. I’m sorry.”
. . .
You might also enjoy:
Wolf Pascoe’s essay in the Sun, “Going Under.” The first part of it, anyway.
This video, also called “Going Under,” shows a contemporary anesthesia induction. It’s a lot better than holding a kid down without warning, but the adults here over-talk a bit, ministering to their own anxieties, just as I did in the car:
from Singlemommyhood: A child’s questions about death
from Privilege of Parenting: Paying loving attention to attachment
. . .
Painting credit: “The First Operation with Ether” by Robert Cutler Hinckley, displayed in the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It depicts the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia by W.T.G. Morton on Friday, October 16, 1846. Morton’s tombstone reads:
By whom, pain in surgery was averted and annulled
Before whom, In all time, Surgery was Agony
Since whom, science has control over pain
Any experiences with kids, scratches, or operations? I’d love you to add your comment below. I always respond here.
Want an alert to the next action-packed episode in the amazing adventures of Just Add Father? Scroll up to “Get E-mail updates” in the column to the right.