“Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long”
“And a bird overhead sang Follow,
And a bird to the right sang Here;
And the arch of the leaves was hollow,
And the meaning of May was clear.”
–Algernon Charles Swinburne
Yesterday morning I sat in the waiting room of the surgical center, and I waited—of course. It was May first, May Day, the day of flowers and revolution, parades and Maypoles. In our region, torrential April showers the night before left flooded streets and hopes that now giant May blooms will spring forth. In any case, I waited. I edited three entries for my next book, checked Facebook, read part of a novel, and waited some more. My husband was having cataract surgery done. This was his second surgery; he’d had the first eye done a few weeks ago. He is fine (except for some extra pressure in his eye right now), and so thrilled to be able to see well. “I can read that!” he exclaims about words that appear on the screen when we watch TV.
I marvel that surgery such as this—removing the lens from an eye and replacing it with a new lens is now “routine surgery.” Yes, I know every surgery carries risks, and I know that some people have had problems with cataract surgery—and probably every type of surgery—but still, I marvel.
For the past week or so, I’ve been immersed in eighteenth-century medicine. I’ve read about Washington’s teeth—there was a man with some dental problems! I’ve thought about what women and doctors said about menstruation–and tried to imagine coping with that before disposable pads, tampons, or running water. I’ve examined documents about eighteenth-century epidemics and medical techniques. And so, though I long for the non-invasive medical techniques practiced by Dr. McCoy and Dr. Crusher on Star Trek in their respective Enterprise sick bays, I still marvel at how medicine has advanced from the eighteenth-century.
All types of revolutions took place in the eighteenth-century. There was the revolution that gave my country, the United States of America, its independence. There was a revolution in France a few years later that toppled its monarchy, at least for a time. The revolution in Haiti ended slavery there and sent French masters to the new United States. But, there were also revolutions in science and scientific thinking, as men—and women—sought, as they have throughout time, to explain the world around them.
The changes to “scientific practices” were not always beneficial. For example, in the late eighteenth-century, Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine, delivered nearly 1,000 babies without any mother dying during delivery, and only five mothers died during the “lying-in” period. These rates were much lower than that of her contemporary physicians. Ballard, was a particularly skilled and conscientious mid-wife; some of the physicians who delivered babies did not have her skill or experience. In addition, physicians sometimes attended laboring mothers after they had examined seriously ill patients. Since this was before doctors and the lay public understood how diseases were spread or about the need for sanitary practices and sterilization (some people still don’t understand—like those people who don’t wash their hands in public restrooms. Ewwwww!), “advancement” in obstetrical techniques practiced by physicians sometimes led to more deaths of mothers than the traditional birthing procedures practiced by midwives.*
Still, I marvel. While working on my forthcoming Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, I read several gruesome accounts of women undergoing mastectomies without anesthesia. The over diagnoses and treatment of breast cancer is a debate to have at another time, but I think all would agree that surgery without anesthesia, X-rays, and other modern surgical tools is not something we would want to experience.
I get so peeved when I hear people talk about the good old days that never really existed. There have always been wars, murders, rapes, stealing, and child molestation. Since ancient times, art, music, and storytelling have also existed. Humans have invented better and more efficient ways to kill, but we’ve always invented better ways to heal. We are complex, creative creatures, and sometimes also amazingly simple and stupid.
Some revolutions have brought death, but they have also brought freedom. Some revolutions have brought new ideas. Who know what this month of May will bring? I’m hoping for bright new visions—and flowers, of course.
* Further reading on eighteenth-century midwives and childbirth:
Leavitt, Judith Walzer. 1986. Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scholten, Catherine M. 1985. Childbearing in American Society: 1650-1850. New York: New York University Press.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. 1990. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Knopf.