When anesthesia isn’t an option…

My eleventh birthday, April 7, 1982, was a remarkable day. I’d gone to school that morning as usual, in my blue and white uniform and patent leather shoes.  On and off during the day, I’d experienced pain.  I mentioned it to my teacher, who in the best of the British educational tradition, told me to “steel yourself and carry on.”  By 2 pm I was miserable.  My family lived about a mile away, and the pain became such that I finally just walked out of class and out the front gates under the threat of a caning by the head mistress–I walked home.

Mom said I was blue/green around the mouth by the time I climbed the steps of the front veranda. I could barely stand upright. Mom and dad immediately bundled me up and drove me down the road to the general hospital in Port Moresby. Upon arrival it became clear that my appendix was hot–if not ruptured already, then just about to.  They handed my mom a razor and a bottle of Phisohex and told her to prep me for surgery.  Dad ran out to the car and got the blanket they’d earlier bundled me in.  He held me up in the shower while mom prepped me.  They dried me off in the blanket from the car.

Dad carried me to the gurney, and laid me down.  The doctor indicated one of them should accompany me to the operating theater.  They carefully instructed my dad to take his shoes off prior to entering the ‘sterile’ environment.

For reasons my family never quite understood, the doctors gave me a very mild sedative but no anesthesia.  They strapped me down to the bed and removed my appendix under the sedative effects of Benadryl. When I rose up in pain onto my elbows, they instructed dad to hold me down.  He leaned over me with his full weight, and talked me through the surgery by describing the equipment in the room until I finally passed out.

I came to in a general surgical ward which consisted of eights beds, four on each side in rows on a concrete pad, surrounded by mosquito netting.  There was a sink at the end of the aisle between the 2 rows of beds.  Mom laid on a bamboo matt under my bed, waiting for me to wake and ensuring my safety. I was in severe pain, and mom wasn’t able to convince anyone to give me any pain medicine–they had left my belly open with a drain intact, out of fear of infection.

Mom stood by the bedside and we watched rats climb the mosquito netting. After a few hours, the doctor came to the bedside and suggested that my folks take me home, as “it is likely cleaner at your house, than it is here”. Dad bundled me up in the same blanket we’d earlier used as a towel, and trying to be as gentle as possible, laid me in the back of the car. We drove the long bumpy ride home slowly and painfully.

I believe my parents were more traumatized by all this than I.

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