"Speaking of Operations--"
Irvin S. Cobb
This Etext prepared by Kirk Pearson
"Speaking of Operations--"
by Irvin S. Cobb
Respectfully dedicated to two classes:
Those who have already been operated on
Those who have not yet been operated on
Now that the last belated bill for services professionally rendered
has been properly paid and properly receipted; now that the memory
of the event, like the mark of the stitches, has faded out from a
vivid red to a becoming pink shade; now that I pass a display of
adhesive tape in a drug-store window without flinching--I sit me
down to write a little piece about a certain matter--a small thing,
but mine own--to wit, That Operation.
For years I have noticed that persons who underwent pruning or
remodeling at the hands of a duly qualified surgeon, and survived,
like to talk about it afterward. In the event of their not surviving
I have no doubt they still liked to talk about it, but in a different
locality. Of all the readily available topics for use, whether
among friends or among strangers, an operation seems to be the
handiest and most dependable. It beats the Tariff, or Roosevelt,
or Bryan, or when this war is going to end, if ever, if you are a
man talking to other men; and it is more exciting even than the
question of how Mrs. Vernon Castle will wear her hair this season,
if you are a woman talking to other women.
For mixed companies a whale is one of the best and the easiest
things to talk about that I know of. In regard to whales and
their peculiarities you can make almost any assertion without fear
of successful contradiction. Nobody ever knows any more about
them than you do. You are not hampered by facts. If someone
mentions the blubber of the whale and you chime in and say it may
be noticed for miles on a still day when the large but emotional
creature has been moved to tears by some great sorrow coming into
its life, everybody is bound to accept the statement. For after
all how few among us really know whether a distressed whale sobs
aloud or does so under its breath? Who, with any certainty, can
tell whether a mother whale hatches her own egg her own self or
leaves it on the sheltered bosom of a fjord to be incubated by
the gentle warmth of the midnight sun? The possibilities of the
proposition for purposes of informal debate, pro and con, are
apparent at a glance.
The weather, of course, helps out amazingly when you are meeting
people for the first time, because there is nearly always more or
less weather going on somewhere and practically everybody has ideas
about it. The human breakfast is also a wonderfully good topic
to start up during one of those lulls. Try it yourself the next
time the conversation seems to drag. Just speak up in an offhand
kind of way and say that you never care much about breakfast--a
slice of toast and a cup of weak tea start you off properly for
doing a hard day's work. You will be surprised to note how things
liven up and how eagerly all present join in. The lady on your
left feels that you should know she always takes two lumps of sugar
and nearly half cream, because she simply cannot abide hot milk,
no matter what the doctors say. The gentleman on your right will
be moved to confess he likes his eggs boiled for exactly three
minutes, no more and no less. Buckwheat cakes and sausage find a
champion and oatmeal rarely lacks a warm defender.
But after all, when all is said and done, the king of all topics
is operations. Sooner or later, wherever two or more are gathered
together it is reasonably certain that somebody will bring up an
Until I passed through the experience of being operated on myself,
I never really realized what a precious conversational boon the
subject is, and how great a part it plays in our intercourse with
our fellow beings on this planet. To the teller it is enormously
interesting, for he is not only the hero of the tale but the rest
of the cast and the stage setting as well--the whole show, as they
say; and if the listener has had a similar experience--and who is
there among us in these days that has not taken a nap 'neath the
shade of the old ether cone?--it acquires a doubled value.
"Speaking of operations--" you say, just like that, even though
nobody present has spoken of them; and then you are off, with your
new acquaintance sitting on the edge of his chair, or hers as the
case may be and so frequently is, with hands clutched in polite
but painful restraint, gills working up and down with impatience,
eyes brightened with desire, tongue hung in the middle, waiting for
you to pause to catch your breath, so that he or she may break in
with a few personal recollections along the same line. From a mere
conversation it resolves itself into a symptom symposium, and a
perfectly splendid time is had by all.
If an operation is such a good thing to talk about, why isn't it a
good thing to write about, too? That is what I wish to know.
Besides, I need the money. Verily, one always needs the money
when one has but recently escaped from the ministering clutches
of the modern hospital. Therefore I write.
It all dates back to the fair, bright morning when I went to call
on a prominent practitioner here in New York, whom I shall denominate
as Doctor X. I had a pain. I had had it for days. It was not a
dependable, locatable pain, such as a tummyache or a toothache is,
which you can put your hand on; but an indefinite, unsettled,
undecided kind of pain, which went wandering about from place to
place inside of me like a strange ghost lost in Cudjo's Cave. I
never knew until then what the personal sensations of a haunted
house are. If only the measly thing could have made up its mind
to settle down somewhere and start light housekeeping I think
should have been better satisfied. I never had such an uneasy
tenant. Alongside of it a woman with the moving fever would be
comparatively a fixed and stationary object.
Having always, therefore, enjoyed perfectly riotous and absolutely
unbridled health, never feeling weak and distressed unless dinner
happened to be ten or fifteen minutes late, I was green regarding
physicians and the ways of physicians. But I knew Doctor X slightly,
having met him last summer in one of his hours of ease in the grand
stand at a ball game, when he was expressing a desire to cut the
umpire's throat from ear to ear, free of charge; and I remembered
his name, and remembered, too, that he had impressed me at the
time as being a person of character and decision and scholarly
He wore whiskers. Somehow in my mind whiskers are ever associated
with medical skill. I presume this is a heritage of my youth,
though I believe others labor under the same impression.
As I look back it seems to me that in childhood's days all the
doctors in our town wore whiskers.
I recall one old doctor down there in Kentucky who was practically
lurking in ambush all the time. All he needed was a few decoys
out in front of him and a pump gun to be a duck blind. He carried
his calomel about with him in a fruit jar, and when there was
cutting job he stropped his scalpel on his bootleg.
You see, in those primitive times germs had not been invented yet,
and so he did not have to take any steps to avoid them. Now we
know that loose, luxuriant whiskers are unsanitary, because they
make such fine winter quarters for germs; so, though the doctors
still wear whiskers, they do not wear them wild and waving. In
the profession bosky whiskers are taboo; they must be landscaped.
And since it is a recognized fact that germs abhor orderliness and
straight lines they now go elsewhere to reside, and the doctor may
still retain his traditional aspect and yet be practically germproof.
Doctor X was trimmed in accordance with the ethics of the newer
school. He had trellis whiskers. So I went to see him at his
offices in a fashionable district, on an expensive side street.
Before reaching him I passed through the hands of a maid and a
nurse, each of whom spoke to me in a low, sorrowful tone of voice,
which seemed to indicate that there was very little hope.
I reached an inner room where Doctor X was. He looked me over,
while I described for him as best I could what seemed to be the
matter with me, and asked me a number of intimate questions touching
on the lives, works, characters and peculiarities of my ancestors;
after which he made me stand up in front of him and take my coat
off, and he punched me hither and yon with his forefinger. He
also knocked repeatedly on my breastbone with his knuckles, and
each time, on doing this, would apply his ear to my chest and listen
intently for a spell, afterward shaking his head in a disappointed
way. Apparently there was nobody at home. For quite a time he
kept on knocking, but without getting any response.
He then took my temperature and fifteen dollars, and said it was
an interesting case--not unusual exactly, but interesting--and
that it called for an operation.
From the way my heart and other organs jumped inside of me at
that statement I knew at once that, no matter what he may have
thought, the premises were not unoccupied. Naturally I inquired
how soon he meant to operate. Personally I trusted there was no
hurry about it. I was perfectly willing to wait for several
years, if necessary. He smiled at my ignorance.
"I never operate," he said; "operating is entirely out of my line.
I am a diagnostician."
He was, too--I give him full credit for that. He was a good,
keen, close diagnostician. How did he know I had only fifteen
dollars on me? You did not have to tell this man what you had,
or how much. He knew without being told.
I asked whether he was acquainted with Doctor Y--Y being a person
whom I had met casually at a club to which I belong. Oh, yes, he
said, he knew Doctor Y. Y was a clever man, X said--very, very
clever; but Y specialized in the eyes, the ears, the nose and the
throat. I gathered from what Doctor X said that any time Doctor Y
ventured below the thorax he was out of bounds and liable to be
penalized; and that if by any chance he strayed down as far as the
lungs he would call for help and back out as rapidly as possible.
This was news to me. It would appear that these up-to-date
practitioners just go ahead and divide you up and partition you
out among themselves without saying anything to you about it. Your
torso belongs to one man and your legs are the exclusive property
of his brother practitioner down on the next block, and so on.
You may belong to as many as half a dozen specialists, most of
whom, very possibly, are total strangers to you, and yet never
know a thing about it yourself.
It has rather the air of trespass--nay, more than that, it bears
some of the aspects of unlawful entry--but I suppose it is legal.
Certainly, judging by what I am able to learn, the system is being
carried on generally. So it must be ethical. Anything doctors
do in a mass is ethical. Almost anything they do singly and on
individual responsibility is unethical. Being ethical among doctors
is practically the same thing as being a Democrat in Texas or a
Presbyterian in Scotland.
"Y will never do for you," said Doctor X, when I had rallied
somewhat from the shock of these disclosures. "I would suggest
that you go to Doctor Z, at such-and-such an address. You are
exactly in Z's line. I'll let him know that you are coming and
when, and I'll send him down my diagnosis."
So that same afternoon, the appointment having been made by
telephone, I went, full of quavery emotions, to Doctor Z's place.
As soon as I was inside his outer hallway, I realized that I was
nearing the presence of one highly distinguished in his profession.
A pussy-footed male attendant, in a livery that made him look like
a cross between a headwaiter and an undertaker's assistant, escorted
me through an anteroom into a reception-room, where a considerable
number of well-dressed men and women were sitting about in strained
attitudes, pretending to read magazines while they waited their
turns, but in reality furtively watching one another.
I sat down in a convenient chair, adhering fast to my hat and my
umbrella. They were the only friends I had there and I was
determined not to lose them without a struggle. On the wall were
many colored charts showing various portions of the human anatomy
and what ailed them. Directly in front of me was a very thrilling
illustration, evidently copied from an oil painting, of a liver
in a bad state of repair. I said to myself that if I had a liver
like that one I should keep it hidden from the public eye--I would
never permit it to sit for it's portrait. Still, there is no
accounting for tastes. I know a man who got his spleen back from
the doctors and now keeps it in a bottle of alcohol on the what-not
in the parlor, as one of his most treasured possessions, and
sometimes shows it to visitors. He, however, is of a very saving
Presently a lady secretary, who sat behind a roll-top desk in a
corner of the room, lifted a forefinger and silently beckoned me
to her side. I moved over and sat down by her; she took down my
name and my age and my weight and my height, and a number of other
interesting facts that will come in very handy should anyone ever
be moved to write a complete history of my early life. In common
with Doctor X she shared one attribute--she manifested a deep
curiosity regarding my forefathers--wanted to know all about them.
I felt that this was carrying the thing too far. I felt like
saying to her:
"Miss or madam, so far as I know there is nothing the matter with
my ancestors of the second and third generations back, except that
they are dead. I am not here to seek medical assistance for a
grandparent who succumbed to disappointment that time when Samuel
J. Tilden got counted out, or for a great-grandparent who entered
into Eternal Rest very unexpectedly and in a manner entirely
uncalled for as a result of being an innocent bystander in one of
those feuds that were so popular in my native state immediately
following the Mexican War. Leave my ancestors alone. There is
no need of your shaking my family tree in the belief that a few
overripe patients will fall out. I alone--I, me, myself--am the
However, I refrained from making this protest audibly. I judged
she was only going according to the ritual; and as she had a
printed card, with blanks in it ready to be filled out with details
regarding the remote members of the family connection, I humored
When I could not remember something she wished to know concerning
an ancestor I supplied her with thrilling details culled from the
field of fancy. When the card was entirely filled up she sent me
back to my old place to wait. I waited and waited, breeding fresh
ailments all the time. I had started out with one symptom; now if
I had one I had a million and a half. I could feel goose flesh
sprouting out all over me. If I had been taller I might have had
more, but not otherwise. Such is the power of the human imagination
when the surroundings are favorable to its development.
Time passed; to me it appeared that nearly all the time there was
passed and that we were getting along toward the shank-end of the
Christian era mighty fast. I was afraid my turn would come next
and afraid it would not. Perhaps you know this sensation. You
get it at the dentist's, and when you are on the list of after-dinner
speakers at a large banquet, and when you are waiting for the
father of the Only Girl in the World to make up his mind whether
he is willing to try to endure you as a son-in-law.
Then some more time passed.
One by one my companions, obeying a command, passed out through
the door at the back, vanishing out of my life forever. None of
them returned. I was vaguely wondering whether Doctor Z buried
his dead on the premises or had them removed by a secret passageway
in the rear, when a young woman in a nurse's costume tapped me
on the shoulder from behind.
I jumped. She hid a compassionate smile with her hand and told
me that the doctor would see me now.
As I rose to follow her--still clinging with the drowning man's
grip of desperation to my hat and my umbrella--I was astonished
to note by a glance at the calendar on the wall that this was
still the present date. I thought it would be Thursday of next
week at the very least.
Doctor Z also wore whiskers, carefully pointed up by an expert
hedge trimmer. He sat at his desk, surrounded by freewill offerings
from grateful patients and by glass cases containing other things
he had taken away from them when they were not in a condition to
object. I had expected, after all the preliminary ceremonies and
delays, that we should have a long skance together. Not so; not
at all. The modern expert in surgery charges as much for remembering
your name between visits as the family doctor used to expect for
staying up all night with you, but he does not waste any time when
you are in his presence.
I was about to find that out. And a little later on I was to find
out a lot of other things; in fact, that whole week was of immense
educational value to me.
I presume it was because he stood high in his profession, and was
almost constantly engaged in going into the best society that Doctor
Z did not appear to be the least bit excited over my having picked
him out to look into me. In the most perfunctory manner he shook
the hand that has shaken the hands of Jess Willard, George M. Cohan
and Henry Ford, and bade me be seated in a chair which was drawn
up in a strong light, where he might gaze directly at me as we
conversed and so get the full values of the composition. But if
I was a treat for him to look at he concealed his feelings very
He certainly had his emotions under splendid control. But then,
of course, you must remember that he probably had traveled about
extensively and was used to sight-seeing.
From this point on everything passed off in a most businesslike
manner. He reached into a filing cabinet and took out an exhibit,
which I recognized as the same one his secretary had filled out
in the early part of the century. So I was already in the card-index
class. Then briefly he looked over the manifest that Doctor X had
sent him. It may not have been a manifest--it may have been an
invoice or a bill of lading. Anyhow I was in the assignee's hands.
I could only hope it would not eventually become necessary to call
in a receiver. Then he spoke:
"Yes, yes-yes," he said; "yes-yes-yes! Operation required. Small
matter--hum, hum! Let's see--this is Tuesday? Quite so. Do it
Friday! Friday at"--he glanced toward a scribbled pad of engagement
dates at his elbow--"Friday at seven A. M. No, make it seven-fifteen.
Have important tumor case at seven. St. Germicide's Hospital.
You know the place--up on Umpty-umph Street. Go' day! Miss Whoziz,
call next visitor."
And before I realized that practically the whole affair had been
settled I was outside the consultation-room in a small private
hall, and the secretary was telling me further details would be
conveyed to me by mail. I went home in a dazed state. For the
first time I was beginning to learn something about an industry in
which heretofore I had never been interested. Especially was I
struck by the difference now revealed to me in the preliminary
stages of the surgeons' business as compared with their fellow
experts in the allied cutting trades--tailors, for instance, not
to mention barbers. Every barber, you know, used to be a surgeon,
only he spelled it chirurgeon. Since then the two professions
have drifted far apart. Even a half-witted barber--the kind who
always has the first chair as you come into the shop--can easily
spend ten minutes of your time thinking of things he thinks you
should have and mentioning them to you one by one, whereas any
good, live surgeon knows what you have almost instantly.
As for the tailor--consider how wearisome are his methods when
you parallel them alongside the tremendous advances in this direction
made by the surgeon--how cumbersome and old-fashioned and tedious!
Why, an experienced surgeon has you all apart in half the time the
tailor takes up in deciding whether the vest shall fasten with
five buttons or six. Our own domestic tailors are bad enough in
this regard and the Old World tailors are even worse.
I remember a German tailor in Aix-la-Chapelle in the fall of 1914
who undertook to build for me a suit suitable for visiting the
battle lines informally. He was the most literary tailor I ever
met anywhere. He would drape the material over my person and
then take a piece of chalk and write quite a nice long piece on
me. Then he would rub it out and write it all over again, but
more fully. He kept this up at intervals of every other day until
he had writer's cramp. After that he used pins. He would pin the
seams together, uttering little soothing, clucking sounds in German
whenever a pin went through the goods and into me. The German
cluck is not so soothing as the cluck of the English-speaking
peoples, I find.
At the end of two long and trying weeks, which wore both of us
down noticeably, he had the job done. It was not an unqualified
success. He regarded is as a suit of clothes, but I knew better;
it was a set of slip covers, and if only I had been a two-seated
runabout it would have proved a perfect fit, I am sure; but I am
a single-seated design and it did not answer. I wore it to the
war because I had nothing else to wear that would stamp me as a
regular war correspondent, except, of course, my wrist watch; but
I shall not wear it to another war. War is terrible enough already;
and, besides, I have parted with it. On my way home through Holland
I gave that suit to a couple of poor Belgian refugees, and I presume
they are still wearing it.
So far as I have been able to observe, the surgeons and the tailors
of these times share but one common instinct: If you go to a new
surgeon or to a new tailor he is morally certain, after looking
you over, that the last surgeon you had or the last tailor, did
not do your cutting properly. There, however, is where the
resemblance ends. The tailor, as I remarked in effect just now,
wants an hour at least in which to decide how he may best cover
up and disguise the irregularities of the human form; in much less
time than that the surgeon has completely altered the form itself.
With the surgeon it is very much as it is with those learned men
who write those large, impressive works of reference which should
be permanently in every library, and which we are forever buying
from an agent because we are so passionately addicted to payments.
If the thing he seeks does not appear in the contents proper he
knows exactly where to look for it. "See appendix," says the
historian to you in a footnote. "See appendix," says the surgeon
to himself, the while humming a cheery refrain. And so he does.
Well, I went home. This was Tuesday and the operation was not
to be performed until the coming Friday. By Wednesday I had calmed
down considerably. By Thursday morning I was practically normal
again as regards my nerves. You will understand that I was still
in a blissful state of ignorance concerning the actual methods of
the surgical profession as exemplified by its leading exponents of
today. The knowledge I have touched on in the pages immediately
preceding was to come to me later.
Likewise Doctor Z's manner had been deceiving. It could not be
that he meant to carve me to any really noticeable extent--his
attitude had been entirely too casual. At our house carving is
a very serious matter. Any time I take the head of the table and
start in to carve it is fitting women and children get to a place
of safety, and onlookers should get under the table. When we first
began housekeeping and gave our first small dinner-party we had
a brace of ducks cooked in honor of the company, and I, as host,
undertook to carve them. I never knew until then that a duck was
built like a watch--that his works were inclosed in a burglarproof
case. Without the use of dynamite the Red Leary-O'Brien gang could
not have broken into those ducks. I thought so then and I think
so yet. Years have passed since then, but I may state that even
now, when there are guests for dinner, we do not have ducks.
Unless somebody else is going to carve, we have liver.
I mention this fact in passing because it shows that I had learned
to revere carving as one of the higher arts, and one not to be
approached except in a spirit of due appreciation of the magnitude
of the undertaking, and after proper consideration and thought and
reflection, and all that sort of thing.
If this were true as regards a mere duck, why not all the more so
as regards the carving of a person of whom I am so very fond as I
am of myself? Thus I reasoned. And finally, had not Doctor Z
spoken of the coming operation as a small matter? Well then?
Thursday at noon I received from Doctor Z's secretary a note stating
that arrangements had been made for my admission into St. Germicide
that same evening and that I was to spend the night there. This
hardly seemed necessary. Still, the tone of the note appeared to
indicate that the hospital authorities particularly wished to have
me for an overnight guest; and as I reflected that probably the poor
things had few enough bright spots in their busy lives, I decided
I would humor them along and gladden the occasion with my presence
from dinner-time on.
About eight o'clock I strolled in very jauntily. In my mind I
had the whole programme mapped out. I would stay at the hospital
for, say, two days following the operation--or, at most, three.
Then I must be up and away. I had a good deal of work to do and
a number of people to see on important business, and I could not
really afford to waste more than a weekend on the staff of St.
Germicide's. After Monday they must look to their own devices for
social entertainment. That was my idea. Now when I look back on
it I laugh, but it is a hollow laugh and there is no real merriment
Indeed, almost from the moment of my entrance little things began
to come up that were calculated to have a depressing effect on
one's spirits. Downstairs a serious-looking lady met me and entered
in a book a number of salient facts regarding my personality which
the previous investigators had somehow overlooked. There is a lot
of bookkeeping about an operation. This detail attended to, a
young man, dressed in white garments and wearing an expression
that stamped him as one who had suffered a recent deep bereavement
came and relieved me of my hand bag and escorted me upstairs.
As we passed through the upper corridors I had my first introduction
to the hospital smell, which is a smell compounded of iodoform,
ether, gruel, and something boiling. All hospitals have it,
I understand. In time you get used to it, but you never really
care for it.
The young man led me into a small room tastefully decorated with
four walls, a floor, a ceiling, a window sill and a window, a door
and a doorsill, and a bed and a chair. He told me to go to bed.
I did not want to go to bed--it was not my regular bedtime--but
he made a point of it, and I judged it was according to regulations;
so I undressed and put on my night clothes and crawled in. He
left me, taking my other clothes and my shoes with him, but I
was not allowed to get lonely.
A little later a ward surgeon appeared, to put a few inquiries of
a pointed and personal nature. He particularly desired to know
what my trouble was. I explained to him that I couldn't tell him--
he would have to see Doctor X or Doctor Z; they probably knew,
but were keeping it a secret between themselves.
The answer apparently satisfied him, because immediately after
that he made me sign a paper in which I assumed all responsibility
for what was to take place the next morning.
This did not seem exactly fair. As I pointed out to him, it was
the surgeon's affair, not mine; and if the surgeon made a mistake
the joke would be on him and not on me, because in that case I
would not be here anyhow. But I signed, as requested, on the
dotted line, and he departed.
After that, at intervals, the chief house surgeon dropped in,
without knocking, and the head nurse came, and an interne or so,
and a ward nurse, and the special nurse who was to have direct
charge of me. It dawned on me that I was not having any more
privacy in that hospital than a goldfish.
About eleven o'clock an orderly came, and, without consulting my
wishes in the matter, he undressed me until I could have passed
almost anywhere for September Morn's father, and gave me a clean
shave, twice over, on one of my most prominent plane surfaces. I
must confess I enjoyed that part of it. So far as I am able to
recall, it was the only shave I have ever had where the operator
did not spray me with cheap perfumery afterward and then try to
sell me a bottle of hair tonic.
Having shaved me, the young man did me up amidships in a neat
cloth parcel, took his kit under his arm and went away.
It occurred to me that, considering the trivial nature of the case,
a good deal of fuss was being made over me by persons who could
have no personal concern in the matter whatsoever. This thought
recurred to me frequently as I lay there all tied in a bundle like
a week's washing. I did not feel quite so uppish as I had felt.
Why was everybody picking on me?
Anon I slept, but dreamed fitfully. I dreamed that a whole flock
of surgeons came to my bedside and charted me out in sections,
like one of those diagram pictures you see of a beef in the Handy
Compendium of Universal Knowledge, showing the various cuts and
the butcher's pet name for each cut. Each man took his favorite
joint and carried it away, and when they were all gone I was merely
a recent site, full of reverberating echoes and nothing else.
I have had happier dreams in my time; this was not the kind of
dream I should have selected had the choice been left to me.
When I woke the young sun was shining in at the window, and an
orderly--not the orderly who had shaved me, but another one--was
there in my room and my nurse was waiting outside the door. The
orderly dressed me in a quaint suit of pyjamas cut on the half
shell and buttoning stylishly in the back, princesse mode. Then
he rolled in a flat litter on wheels and stretched me on it, and
covered me up with a white tablecloth, just as though I had been
cold Sunday-night supper, and we started for the operating-room
at the top of the building; but before we started I lit a large
black cigar, as Gen. U. S. Grant used to do when he went into
battle. I wished by this to show how indifferent I was. Maybe
he fooled somebody, but I do not believe I possess the same powers
of simulation that Grant had. He must have been a very remarkable
The orderly and the nurse trundled me out into the hall and loaded
me into an elevator, which was to carry us up to the top of the
hospital. Several other nurses were already in the elevator. As
we came aboard one of them remarked that it was a fine day. A
fine day for what? She did not finish the sentence.
Everybody wore a serious look. Inside of myself I felt pretty
serious too--serious enough for ten or twelve. I had meant to
fling off several very bright, spontaneous quips on the way to
the table. I thought them out in advance, but now, somehow, none
of them seemed appropriate. Instinctively, as it were, I felt
that humor was out of place here.
I never knew an elevator to progress from the third floor of a
building to the ninth with such celerity as this one on which we
were traveling progressed. Personally I was in no mood for haste.
If there was anyone else in all that great hospital who was in a
particular hurry to be operated on I was perfectly willing to wait.
But alas, no! The mechanism of the elevator was in perfect order--
entirely too perfect. No accident of any character whatsoever
befell us en route, no dropping back into the basement with a low,
grateful thud; no hitch; no delay of any kind. We were certainly
out of luck that trip. The demon of a joyrider who operated the
accursed device jerked a lever and up we soared at a distressingly
high rate of speed. If I could have had my way about that youth
he would have been arrested for speeding.
Now we were there! They rolled into a large room, all white, with
a rounded ceiling like the inside of an egg. Right away I knew
what the feelings of a poor, lonely little yolk are when the spoon
begins to chip the shell. If I had not been so busy feeling sorry
for myself I think I might have developed quite an active sympathy
My impression had been that this was to be in the nature of a
private affair, without invitations. I was astonished to note
that quite a crowd had assembled for the opening exercises. From
his attire and general deportment I judged that Doctor Z was going
to be the master of the revels, he being attired appropriately in
a white domino, with rubber gloves and a fancy cap of crash toweling.
There were present, also, my diagnostic friend, Doctor X, likewise
in fancy-dress costume, and a surgeon I had never met. From what
I could gather he was going over the course behind Doctor Z to
replace the divots.
And there was an interne in the background, playing caddy, as it
were, and a head nurse, who was going to keep the score, and two
other nurses, who were going to help her keep it. I only hoped
that they would show no partiality, but be as fair to me as they
were to Doctor Z, and that he would go round in par.
So they placed me right where my eyes might rest on a large wall
cabinet full of very shiny-looking tools; and they took my cigar
away from me and folded my hands on the wide bowknot of my sash.
Then they put a cloth dingus over my face and a voice of authority
told me to breathe. That advice, however, was superfluous and
might just as well have been omitted, for such was my purpose
anyhow. Ever since I can recall anything at all, breathing has
been a regular habit with me. So I breathed. And, at that, a
bottle of highly charged sarsaparilla exploded somewhere in the
immediate vicinity and most of its contents went up my nose.
I started to tell them that somebody had been fooling with their
ether and adulterating it, and that if they thought they could
send me off to sleep with soda pop they were making the mistake
of their lives, because it just naturally could not be done; but
for some reason or other I decided to put off speaking about the
matter for a few minutes. I breathed again--again--agai----
I was going away from there. I was in a large gas balloon, soaring
up into the clouds. How pleasant! ... No, by Jove! I was not in
a balloon--I myself was the balloon, which was not quite so pleasant.
Besides, Doctor Z was going along as a passenger; and as we traveled
up and up he kept jabbing me in the midriff with the ferrule of a
large umbrella which he had brought along with him in case of rain.
He jabbed me harder and harder. I remonstrated with him. I told
him I was a bit tender in that locality and the ferrule of his
umbrella was sharp. He would not listen. He kept on jabbing me.
Something broke! We started back down to earth. We fell faster
and faster. We fell nine miles, and after that I began to get
used to it. Then I saw the earth beneath and it was rising up to
A town was below--a town that grew larger and larger as we neared
it. I could make out the bonded indebtedness, and the Carnegie
Library, and the moving-picture palaces, and the new dancing parlor,
and other principal points of interest.
At the rate we were falling we were certainly going to make an
awful splatter in that town when we hit. I was sorry for the
We fell another half mile or so. A spire was sticking up into the
sky directly beneath us, like a spear, to impale us. By a supreme
effort I twisted out of the way of that spire, only to strike
squarely on top of the roof of a greenhouse back of the parsonage,
next door. We crashed through it with a perfectly terrific clatter
of breaking glass and landed in a bed of white flowers, all soft
and downy, like feathers.
And then Doctor Z stood up and combed the debris out of his whiskers
and remarked that, taking it by and large, it had been one of the
pleasantest little outings he had enjoyed in the entire course of
his practice. He said that as a patient I was fair, but as a
balloon I was immense. He asked me whether I had seen anything
of his umbrella and began looking round for it. I tried to help
him look, but I was too tired to exert myself much. I told him I
believed I would take a little nap.
I opened a dizzy eye part way. So this was heaven--this white
expanse that swung and swam before my languid gaze? No, it could
not be--it did not smell like heaven. It smelled like a hospital.
It was a hospital. It was my hospital. My nurse was bending over
me and I caught a faint whiff of the starch in the front of her
crisp blue blouse. She was two-headed for the moment, but that
was a mere detail. She settled a pillow under my head and told me
to lie quiet.
I meant to lie quiet; I did not have to be told. I wanted to lie
quiet and hurt. I was hurty from head to toe and back again, and
crosswise and cater-cornered. I hurt diagonally and lengthwise
and on the bias. I had a taste in my mouth like a bird-and-animal
store. And empty! It seemed to me those doctors had not left
anything inside of me except the acoustics. Well, there was a
mite of consolation there. If the overhauling had been as thorough
as I had reason to believe it was from my present sensations, I
need never fear catching anything again so long as I lived, except
I waved the nurse away. I craved solitude. I desired only to
lie there in that bed and hurt--which I did.
I had said beforehand I meant to stay in St. Germicide's for two
or three days only. It is when I look back on that resolution I
emit the hollow laugh elsewhere referred to. For exactly four
weeks I was flat on my back. I know now how excessively wearied
a man can get of his own back, how tired of it, how bored with
it! And after that another two weeks elapsed before my legs became
the same dependable pair of legs I had known in the past.
I did not want to eat at first, and when I did begin to want to
they would not let me. If I felt sort of peckish they let me suck
a little glass thermometer, but there is not much nourishment
really in thermometers. And for entertainment, to wile the dragging
hours away, I could count the cracks in the ceiling and read my
temperature chart, which was a good deal like Red Ames' batting
average for the past season--ranging from ninety-nine to one hundred
Also, through daily conversations with my nurse and with the
surgeons who dropped in from time to time to have a look at me,
I learned, as I lay there, a great deal about the medical profession--
that is, a great deal for a layman--and what I learned filled me
with an abiding admiration for it, both as a science and as a
business. This surely is one profession which ever keeps its face
to the front. Burying its past mistakes and forgetting them as
speedily as possible, it pushes straight forward into fresh fields
and fresh patients, always hopeful of what the future may bring
in the way of newly discovered and highly expensive ailments. As
we look backward upon the centuries we are astonished by its
advancement. I did a good deal of looking backwards upon the
centuries during my sojourn at St. Germicide's.
Take the Middle Ages now--the period when a barber and a surgeon
were one and the same. If a man made a failure as a barber he
turned his talents to surgery. Surgeons in those times were a
husky breed. I judge they worked by the day instead of by piecework;
anyhow the records show they were very fond of experiments where
somebody else furnished the raw material.
When there came a resounding knock at the tradesman's entrance of
the moated grange, the lord of the manor, looking over the portcullis
and seeing a lusty wight standing down below, in a leather apron,
with his sleeves rolled up and a kit of soldering tools under his
arm, didn't know until he made inquiry whether the gentle stranger
had come to mend the drain or remove the cook's leg.
A little later along, when gunpowder had come into general use as
a humanizing factor of civilization, surgeons treated a gunshot
wound by pouring boiling lard into it, which I would say was
calculated to take the victim's mind off his wound and give him
something else to think about--for the time being, anyhow. I
assume the notion of applying a mustard plaster outside one's
stomach when one has a pain inside one's stomach is based on the
However, one doesn't have to go clear back to medieval times to
note the radical differences in the plan of treating human ailments.
A great many persons who are still living can remember when the
doctors were not nearly so numerous as they are now. I, for one,
would be the last to reverse the sentence and say that because the
doctors were not nearly so numerous then as they are now, those
persons are still living so numerously.
In the spring of the year, when the sap flowed and the birds mated,
the sturdy farmer felt that he was due to have something the matter
with him, too. So he would ride into the country-seat and get an
almanac. Doubtless the reader, if country raised, has seen copies
of this popular work. On the outside cover, which was dark blue
in color, there was a picture of a person whose stomach was sliced
four ways, like a twenty-cent pie, and then folded back neatly,
thus exposing his entire interior arrangements to the gaze of the
casual observer. However, this party, judging by his picture, did
not appear to be suffering. He did not even seem to fear that he
might catch cold from standing there in his own draught. He was
gazing off into space in an absent-minded kind of way, apparently
not aware that anything was wrong with him; and on all sides he
was surrounded by interesting exhibits, such as a crab, and a
scorpion, and a goat, and a chap with a bow and arrow--and one
thing and another.
Such was the main design of the cover, while the contents were
made up of recognized and standard varieties in the line of jokes
and the line of diseases which alternated, with first a favorite
joke and then a favorite disease. The author who wrote the
descriptions of the diseases was one of the most convincing writers
that ever lived anywhere. As a realist he had no superiors among
those using our language as a vehicle for the expression of thought.
He was a wonder. If a person wasn't particular about what ailed
him he could read any page at random and have one specific disease.
Or he could read the whole book through and have them all, in
their most advanced stages. Then the only thing that could save
him was a large dollar bottle.
Again, in attacks of the breakbone ague or malaria it was customary
to call in a local practitioner, generally an elderly lady of the
neighborhood who had none of these latter-day prejudices regarding
the use of tobacco by the gentler sex. One whom I distantly recall,
among childhood's happy memories, carried this liberal-mindedness
to a point where she not only dipped snuff and smoked a cob pipe,
but sometimes chewed a little natural leaf. This lady, on being
called in, would brew up a large caldron of medicinal roots and
barks and sprouts and things; and then she would deluge the interior
of the sufferer with a large gourdful of this pleasing mixture at
regular intervals. It was efficacious, too. The inundated person
either got well or else he drowned from the inside. Rocking the
patient was almost as dangerous a pastime as rocking the boat.
This also helps to explain, I think, why so many of our forebears
had floating kidneys. There was nothing else for a kidney to do.
By the time I attained to long trousers, people in our town mainly
had outgrown the unlicensed expert and were depending more and
more upon the old-fashioned family doctor--the one with the
whisker-jungle--who drove about in a gig, accompanied by a haunting
aroma of iodoform and carrying his calomel with him in bulk.
He probably owned a secret calomel mine of his own. He must have;
otherwise he could never have afforded to be so generous with it.
He also had other medicines with him, all of them being selected
on the principle that unless a drug tasted like the very dickens
it couldn't possibly do you any good. At all hours of the day and
night he was to be seen going to and fro, distributing nuggets
from his private lode. He went to bed with his trousers and his
hat on, I think, and there was a general belief that his old mare
slept between the shafts of the gig, with the bridle shoved up on
It has been only a few years since the oldtime general practitioner
was everywhere. Just look round and see now how the system has
changed! If your liver begins to misconduct itself the first thought
of the modern operator is to cut it out and hide it some place where
you can't find it. The oldtimer would have bombarded it with a
large brunette pill about the size and color of a damson plum.
Or he might put you on a diet of molasses seasoned to taste with
blue mass and quinine and other attractive condiments. Likewise,
in the spring of the year he frequently anointed the young of the
species with a mixture of mutton suet and asafetida. This treatment
had an effect that was distinctly depressing upon the growing boy.
It militated against his popularity. It forced him to seek his
pleasures outdoors, and a good distance outdoors at that.
It was very hard for a boy, however naturally attractive he might
be, to retain his popularity at the fireside circle when coated
with mutton suet and asafetida and then taken into a warm room.
He attracted attention which he did not court and which was
distasteful to him. Keeping quiet did not seem to help him any.
Even if they had been blindfolded others would still have felt his
presence. A civit-cat suffers from the same drawbacks in a social
way, but the advantage to the civit-cat is that as a general thing
it associates only with other civit-cats.
Except in the country the old-time, catch-as-catch-can general
practitioner appears to be dying out. In the city one finds him
occasionally, playing a limit game in an office on a back street--
two dollars to come in, five to call; but the tendency of the day
is toward specialists. Hence the expert who treats you for just
one particular thing With a pain in your chest, say, you go to a
chest specialist. So long as he can keep the trouble confined to
your chest, all well and good. If it slips down or slides up he
tries to coax it back to the reservation. lf it refuses to do so,
he bids it an affectionate adieu, makes a dotted mark on you to
show where he left off, collects his bill and regretfully turns
you over to a stomach specialist or a throat specialist, depending
on the direction in which the trouble was headed when last seen.
Or, perhaps the specialist to whom you take your custom is an
advocate of an immediate operation for such cases as yours and
all others. I may be unduly sensitive on account of having recently
emerged from the surgeon's hands, but it strikes me now that there
are an awful lot of doctors who take one brief glance at a person
who is complaining, and say to themselves that here is something
that ought to be looked into right away--and immediately open a
bag and start picking out the proper utensils. You go into a
doctor's office and tell him you do not feel the best in the world--
and he gives you a look and excuses himself, and steps into the
next room and begins greasing a saw.
Mind you, in these casual observations as compiled by me while
bedfast and here given utterance, I am not seeking to disparage
possibly the noblest of professions. Lately I have owed much to
it. I am strictly on the doctor's side. He is with us when we
come into the world and with us when we go out of it, oftentimes
lending a helping hand on both occasions. Anyway, our sympathies
should especially go out to the medical profession at this particular
time when the anti-vivisectionists are railing so loudly against
the doctors. The anti-vivisection crusade has enlisted widely
different classes in the community, including many lovers of our
dumb-animal pets--and aren't some of them the dumbest things you
ever saw!--especially chow dogs and love birds.
I will admit there is something to be said on both sides of the
argument. This dissecting of live subjects may have been carried
to extremes on occasions. When I read in the medical journals
that the eminent Doctor Somebody succeeded in transferring the
interior department of a pelican to a pointer pup, and vice versa
with such success that the pup drowned while diving for minnows,
and the pelican went out in the back yard and barked himself to
death baying at the moon, I am interested naturally; but, possibly
because of my ignorance, I fail to see wherein the treatment of
infantile paralysis has been materially advanced. On the other
hand I would rather the kind and gentle Belgian hare should be
offered up as a sacrifice upon the operating table and leave behind
him a large family of little Belgian heirs and heiresses--dependent
upon the charity of a cruel world--than that I should have something
painful which can be avoided through making him a martyr. I would
rather any white rabbit on earth should have the Asiatic cholera
twice than that I should have it just once. These are my sincere
convictions, and I will not attempt to disguise them.
Thanks too, to medical science we know about germs and serums and
diets and all that. Our less fortunate ancestors didn't know about
them. They were befogged in ignorance. As recently as the generation
immediately preceding ours people were unacquainted with the simplest
rules of hygiene. They didn't care whether the housefly wiped his
feet before he came into the house or not. The gentleman with the
drooping, cream-separator mustache was at perfect liberty to use
the common drinking cup on the railroad train. The appendix lurked
in its snug retreat, undisturbed by the prying fingers of curiosity.
The fever-bearing skeeter buzzed and flitted, stinging where he
pleased. The germ theory was unfathomed. Suitable food for an
invalid was anything the invalid could afford to buy. Fresh air,
and more especially fresh night air, was regarded as dangerous,
and people hermetically sealed themselves in before retiring. Not
daily as at present was the world gladdened by the tidings that
science had unearthed some new and particularly unpleasant disease.
It never occurred to a mother that she should sterilize the slipper
before spanking her offspring. Babies were not reared antiseptically,
but just so. Nobody was aware of microbes.
In short, our sires and our grandsires abode in the midst of perils.
They were surrounded on all sides by things that are immediately
fatal to the human system. Not a single one of them had a right
to pass his second birthday. In the light of what we know, we
realize that by now this world should be but a barren waste dotted
at frequent intervals with large graveyards and populated only by
a few dispossessed and hungry bacteria, hanging over the cemetery
fence singing: Driven From Home!
In the conditions generally prevalent up to twenty-five years ago,
most of us never had any license, really, to be born at all. Yet
look how many of us are now here. In this age of research I
hesitate to attempt to account for it, except on the entirely
unscientific theory that what you don't know doesn't hurt you.
Doubtless a physician could give you a better explanation, but
his would cost you more than mine has.
But we digress. Let us get back to our main subject, which is
myself. I shall never forget my first real meal in that hospital.
There was quite a good deal of talk about it beforehand. My nurse
kept telling me that on the next day the doctor had promised I
might have something to eat. I could hardly wait. I had visions
of a tenderloin steak smothered in fried onions, and some French-fried
potatoes, and a tall table-limit stack of wheat cakes, and a few
other incidental comfits and kickshaws. I could hardly wait for
The next day came and she brought it to me, and I partook thereof.
It was the white of an egg. For dessert I licked a stamp; but
this I did clandestinely and by stealth, without saying anything
about it to her. I was not supposed to have any sweets.
On the occasion of the next feast the diet was varied. I had a
sip of one of those fermented milk products. You probably know
the sort of thing I mean. Even before you've swallowed it, it
tastes as though it had already disagreed with you. The nurse
said this food was predigested but did not tell me by whom. Nor
did I ask her. I started to, but thought better of it. Sometimes
one is all the happier for not knowing too much.
A little later on, seeing that I had not suffered an attack of
indigestion from this debauch, they gave me junket. In the
dictionary I have looked up the definitions of junket. I quote:
JUNKET, v. I. t. To entertain by feasting; regale. II. i. To
give or take part in an entertainment or excursion; feast in
company; picnic; revel.
JUNKET, n. A merry feast or excursion; picnic.
When the author of a dictionary tries to be frivolous he only
succeeds in making himself appear foolish.
I know not how it may be in the world at large, but in a hospital,
junket is a custard that by some subtle process has been denuded
of those ingredients which make a custard fascinating and exciting.
It tastes as though the eggs, which form its underlying basis, had
been laid in a fit of pique by a hen that was severely upset at
Hereafter when the junket is passed round somebody else may have
my share. I'll stick to the mince pie a la mode. And the first
cigar of my convalescence--ah, that, too, abides as a vivid
memory! Dropping in one morning to replace the wrappings Doctor Z
said I might smoke in moderation. So the nurse brought me a cigar,
and I lit it and took one deep puff; but only one. I laid it aside.
I said to the nurse:
"A mistake has been made here. I do not want a cooking cigar, you
understand. I desire a cigar for personal use. This one is full
of herbs and simples, I think. It suggests a New England boiled
dinner, and not a very good New England boiled dinner at that.
Let us try again."
She brought another cigar. It was not satisfactory either. Then
she showed me the box--an orthodox box containing cigars of a
recognized and previously dependable brand. I could only conclude
that a root-and-herb doctor had bought an interest in the business
and was introducing his own pet notions into the formula.
But came a day--as the fancy writers say when they wish to convey
the impression that a day has come, but hate to do it in a
commonplace manner--came a day when my cigar tasted as a cigar
should taste and food had the proper relish to it; and my appetite
came back again and found the old home place not so greatly changed
And then shortly thereafter came another day, when I, all replete
with expensive stitches, might drape the customary habiliments of
civilization about my attenuated frame and go forth to mingle with
my fellow beings. I have been mingling pretty steadily ever since,
for now I have something to talk about--a topic good for any
company; congenial, an absorbing topic.
I can spot a brother member a block away. I hasten up to him and
give him the grand hailing sign of the order. He opens his mouth
to speak, but I beat him to it.
"Speaking of operations --" I say. And then I'm off. Believe me,
it's the life!
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