Doctor, doctor, cut my throat*

My little nephew is having his tonsils removed this morning, poor little fellow, and it reminded me of my own experience with this procedure nearly three decades ago.

Back in those dark days, tonsils were taken out more readily than they are today.  For me, it took about a year’s worth of strep throat to convince doctors that my tonsils (and adenoids) had to come out. I was ten and I can remember a constant barrage of sore throats, and those gag-inducing strep swabs. But when the doctor told my parents that the tonsils would have to come out, I was a little nervous.

They came out in the spring and I it was the first and only time in my life that I was checked into a hospital for surgery under general anesthesia. We arrived at the crack of dawn, and I was braceleted and gowned and eventually, a nurse came along and gave me a shot that was supposed to relax me. I’m not sure why this was necessary and by the time I was wheeled into the operating room–something I remember with particular clarity, my heart was racing and I felt very unrelaxed.

The surgeon, behind his mask, asked me if I wanted “flavored” gas or an injection to knock me out. I had a friend who’d been through the procedure and he’d taken the gas and it had made him sick. If there was one thing I hated, it was the feeling of nausea (true to this day), so I said, “Which is easier for you?”

“The injection,” the doctor replied, and that’s what they did.  I felt a slight burning in my arm as they put in an IV (the only time I’ve ever had one). The doctor then put the anesthetic injection into the IV and asked me to count down backward from 100.  Why on earth he picked 100 is beyond my ability to comprehend.  I got to 97, watching the little ball of liquid drop into my wrist and then I was in the recovery room. There was no fading to black, no steadily drifting off. No dreams, no sleep. It was what I imagine teleportation would be like.  One instant I was laying on the operating table and in the very next instant I was laying in recovery.

There was blood on my pillow. I sat up and called for the nurse. Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to do that, for the nurse came rushing over telling me not to talk. I later found out that I had to be taken back into the OR in order for the doctor to cauterize a bleeder, and that explained the blood on the pillow.  (Although, looking back on it with twenty-eight-year hindsight, you’d think they would have given me a fresh pillow.) I asked to look at a newspaper. Why on earth I would ask for this, I have no idea but I remember doing so as clearly as if it happened yesterday. I was in a children’s ward and apparently, children didn’t read newspapers so none was given to me.

In the weeks leading up to the surgery, everyone told me that I would be given ice cream, all I could eat, to help with the pain after the operation. In the hospital, I got exactly NO ice cream. In fact, I got one lousy lime-flavored ice-pop that tasted more like mouthwash than anything else. The fury of this deceit burns right down to this very day.

In the evening I was released to go home. I don’t remember if I was given pain medication or not, but I remember my throat hurt far worse than at any point during the year or so of Strep. So much for the surgery, right? The worst part was when phlegm would get caught in my throat. It hurt so much to hawk it up, that it would get caught there and I’d feel like I was choking on it. But by the next day, things felt a little better.

Someone (a nurse? doctor?) told me that after my tonsils were removed, I’d never have to worry about Strep throat again. I don’t know if this is medically true or not, but I can say that in the twenty-eight years since I have had only the occasional sore throat, always associated with a cold, and never, not even once, had Strep throat again.

I imagine things will go much more smoothly and much more pain-free for my little nephew today what with all of the modern technology that medical science has to offer. Tonsillectomies have been taking place for 3,000 years. I can’t imagine what it was like for the first guy who had those lymphoepithelial tissues removed.


* From Isaac Asimov’s verse, “Doctor, Doctor, Cut My Throat” about his own experience with a throat surgery. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s hilarious.