September 9th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

My 1966 Tonsillectomy/Adenoidectomy: First the Story

allura629 just got back from her tonsillectomy. I found out from her in chat, even before I glanced at my friends page, that it went perfectly routinely and other than the fact that she hates the pain-killer they prescribed for her recovery, she is healing normally. This frees me up to do what everybody wants to do (especially old people like me) when somebody brings up a medical condition or surgery: share horror stories. But while I was thinking about it after I got off chat, it occurred to me that there really may actually be some interesting things to say, other than the fact that it's part of my personal history, about my 1966 tonsillectomies and adenoidectomy. First, the actual story. Then, probably tomorrow, the things that seem interesting to me about it in hindsight, 39 years later.

I had just started school and only been in school for a couple of weeks when the throat problems started. Before long, the pain became unbearable, and a doctor confirmed: badly infected, inflamed tonsils. Because 1966 medical science held that that the tonsils were a useless organ, an evolutionary holdover, providing no measurable utility and prone to infection, no thought was given to treating them with antibiotics. OK, some thought was given to it ... for all of a few seconds, that being all the longer it took to convince my parents that even if antibiotics solved the current problem, it would take over a week, and the problem would just come back. Better to get them out now and be done with it, especially since the infection hadn't yet spread to the adenoids.

So I was taken out of first grade, and after a couple of days taken to the hospital and checked in. The night before, they explained to me that I was going to have to sleep again the next day, around noon. They were going to give me a pill in late morning that would make me sleepy. I was not to fight the effect, just to go to sleep. When I woke up, my throat would be just as sore, but getting better instead of worse. And as soon as I woke up and they did a quick check on my throat, I could have all the mint-flavored ice cream I wanted.

I slept normally, woke up the next day bored and sore, and around late morning a nurse came in with a pill. I took it. It didn't do anything, but I wasn't expecting anything. You see, I had misunderstood part of the instructions. I had it in my head, from somewhere, that anesthesia involves breathing some kind of a gas, so I thought it was a two-step process: first I would take a pill, then soon afterwards they would come in and give me something (a gas) to make me sleepy. So I waited patiently for someone to come in and give me the gas. What seemed an eternity later but was probably only about an hour and a half, someone came in, and was disturbed and very angry to find me awake, alert, and waiting patiently for my anesthetic. They checked my chart, confirmed that I had been given the pill. They grilled me very severely to make sure that I had actually taken the pill. And then they dithered, ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. The surgeon's time was scheduled very tightly, and I was supposed to be being rolled into pre-op right now. So they gave me another dose, and ran out to try to reschedule, muttering dire threats about how I might be stuck here for days waiting for another surgery appointment.

I must have slept eventually. I woke up in a different hospital room, my throat still sore. When I could get someone's attention, I got them to explain to me that yes, it was still the same day, and yes, the surgery was done, and no, I couldn't have my ice cream yet. A doctor would have to look at the work first, then I'd probably get my ice cream. Eventually they did, and I got my ice cream -- which tasted terrible. It was chalky, and gritty, and heavily medicinal tasting, and from its texture it can't possibly have ever even seen a picture of any milk solids, let alone sugar. Other than the bluish green color, I couldn't even tell why they called it mint flavored. I tried to send it back. Several times. Finally, someone came by and semi-patiently explained to me that it wasn't just any ice cream, and not just any ice cream would do, it had to be this ice cream or nothing. This ice cream was specially made to cool and numb my throat where they had worked on it, and contained a drug to make the pain go away; I either had to eat this ice cream or wait patiently for whenever I was cleared to eat real food. I sent it back.

I got sent home late that night or the next morning, I forget which. My throat got worse instead of better, though. So my parents dragged me back to the hospital, at which point we all received an amazing series of revelations.

You may remember a controversy from about a year ago about people waking up on the operating table? General anesthesia involves two drugs, a paralysant and a sleep agent. In some tiny percentage of the population, the sleep agent wears off during surgery and the paralysant doesn't. I'm told the experience is horrific. Well, apparently I had the opposite reaction. I remained asleep, more or less, or at least I have no even faint hint of a memory of the surgery ... but halfway through the operation, my limbs regained mobility, and I began half-consciously thrashing to try to stop the operation. They were terribly relieved when they found out that I didn't remember this or at least didn't complain about it afterwards, and that they had left no marks while restraining me so the surgeon could rush through the surgery. Well, guess what? Rushing through the surgery didn't, actually, involve removing all of the tonsils, not even all of the infection. They were in too much of a hurry to double-check.

So I got scheduled for a second surgery to remove the remainder of my tonsils. And it happened again. Oh, this time they smacked me hard enough up front that I fell right asleep on the first try ... but once again, I regained mobility on the operating table before the surgery was 100% done. But the good news this time was that the surgery was almost done when it happened, so they were able to finish up perfectly safely. The plan had been to double-check once the tonsils were out to see if the adenoids needed to come out. They didn't exactly perform a thorough double-check, but they reassured us that my adenoids seemed perfectly healthy. A week later I was back in the hospital. In the gap between the first and second surgeries, the infection had, in fact, spread to my adenoids. The third and final surgery, I gather, was totally routine.