They meant well

I am a doctor who questions a lot of medical dogma. Perhaps my own, somewhat sad medical story at least in part explains this oppositional personality trait.

Valendar F Turner FRACS FACEM

In 1950, when I was five years old, I had a virulent dose of measles.  I remember being very sick with blobs of rash all over my body accompanied by extremely painful, discharging, sticky eyes, incessant coughing and days in bed alone in room darkened by hanging blankets over the windows.  Everybody did that in those days for kids with measles.  After a couple of weeks everything cleared up except the cough.  That cough kept the whole family awake and must have tempted my father to perform the Caligula cure (amputation at the neck).

Six months of coughing later, I ended up at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.  The specialist announced to my parents that I was suffering from ‘pre-bronchiectasis’ and would need to have special treatment otherwise I would develop the real McCoy.  But as I wasn’t that unwell yet, a regular course of lung washouts was prescribed to assuage the disease progression.  So, every six weeks or so, for the four years between 1950 and 1954, I had a rigid bronchoscopy to wash my lungs out.

My mother and I would make the 90 minute bus trip from Collaroy to Gloucester House (the private part of RPAH), a nurse would inject my bottom with atropine and spray my mouth and throat with local anaesthetic. Then I was wheeled into an operating theatre where the good doctor inserted an eighteen inch, dead straight, rigid steel tube as thick as his little finger down my throat and voice box and into my bronchi.

A clear solution of I know not what but probably saline was passed down the tube to cleanse my lungs.  I could always see the solution bubbling out of the corner of my right eye where the bronchoscope joined a piece of plastic tubing.  Every time I noticed the solution was transparent going in and going out and needless to say I was wide awake at every stage of the procedure. The heavenly end came with the doctor announcing “I’m going to take it out now Val”.

There were several worst parts of this procedure.

  • The first time it took five adults to hold me down. One for each limb and one for the head.  (Months later it took zero).
  • Changing from the right to the left lung was gruesome. The tube of course had no bends and the near end would get grate and get stuck against (and twice remove), a front tooth. (I scored two shillings under my hospital pillow from the specialist/tooth fairy for each of those).
  • To add to the ignominy, at the end of the end of each procedure I had to get up from the operating table and stagger over to the other end of the room and sign for the ordeal in a very large book.  God only knows why.

In 1953 the family moved to Grafton and my father had to pay for me to travel to Sydney and back every six weeks on the flying boat to continue treatment.  I was so well know by QANTAS staff they made me an honorary steward on the Catalina.  Perhaps not so strangely I always vomited on the way down but never on the way back.  Later on lung washouts spread to Lismore where I was finally to wind up this arcane episode of my first nine years on planet Earth.

The rub came a decade later when I was a medical student. One day I asked the Professor of medicine about my disease.  Had he heard of “pre-bronchiectasis”?  None of the prescribed text books bore even mention of it. Like phlogiston, miasma, phrenology and other fashionable but wrong ideas in science and medicine pre-bronchiectasis had silently slipped out of the medical lexicon.

In later life, as a patient quizzed by various doctors, I noticed puzzled looks amidst glazed eyes of disbelief whenever I recounted this story.  After all, would you believe someone who claimed to have had fifty bronchoscopies as a kid without sedation for a disease that never existed?  Of course all this took place in a galaxy far, far away and at the behest of kindly men with the very best of intentions.  Somehow that does not make me feel better.

Valendar F Turner  FRACS FACEM


References

Emergency physician MA (Oxon) MBChB (Edin) FACEM FFSEM with a passion for rugby; medical history; medical education; and informatics. Asynchronous learning #FOAMed evangelist. Co-founder and CTO of Life in the Fast lane | Eponyms | Books | vocortex |

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