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Awake when sleeping

Su Lum
Slumming

I was listening to a program on KAJX a while ago where people were discussing the phenomenon of actually being conscious when they were under anesthesia, supposedly dead to the world.

Apparently, this is not extremely rare. My own experience with it is, no doubt, responsible for a lifetime of opting for local anesthesia even when undergoing complicated procedures such as back surgery and some serious mouth excavations. You have to have a serious anesthesia phobia to choose consciousness over tranquil slumber, and I qualify.

When I was five, I had my tonsils taken out — routine in those days — and will never forget that ether mask clamped over my face: the smell of it, the choking, waking up not having a clue where I was or what happened.

As traumatic as this event was, the awake-when-supposed-to-be-unconscious episode occurred some years later, when I was 19 and had to have my right ear lanced because of months of infections, bouts of deafness and visits to old Dr. Matthews, who placed an air hose to my nose and, while I said, “K-k-k-k,” blew my eustachian tubes open.

Ear, nose and throat specialists today sometimes have those blowing machines in their offices as examples of medical antiquity. I recognize them with a shudder.

I was in college at a place colder than the Arctic (Geneva, New York), where I kept coming down with these never-ending ear infections, and when I came home for the holidays old Dr. Matthews pronounced that a lancing was in order.

Needless to say, I was terrified. All of the old ether/choking memories came roiling up, but I was still a minor, still a dependent, and I said nothing as my parents drove me to whatever town it was where this procedure took place.

Enter the room; a large room as I remember — though I would never be able to pick it out of a lineup — with a very narrow padded table in the middle, with straps hanging down the sides, the better to strap my hands and feet so I wouldn’t fight (conquer!) the gas.

In microcosm, I got the sense of what a prisoner must feel when facing execution: You know you can’t prevail, so you just resign yourself and hope it will be over as soon as possible.

As obedient as a sheep to slaughter, I lay on the sacrificial platform and tried to breathe the rotten-orange gas smell as deeply as I could, to get it over with. Still, there was the terrible choking and then I heard Dr. Matthews say, as clear as a bell, “Is she under yet?” and his nurse answered, “Yes, I think so. Yes.”

“No, I’m not under!” my brain was shouting, but nothing came out of my mouth and, lashed to the table, I couldn’t move.

I then heard my ear being lanced. The instrument, which I pictured as a hook, went into my eardrum with a twing, followed by a very loud twang and I then either did go under or fainted from the shock.

I woke up sobbing, holding one of Dr. Matthews’ hands in both of mine — awkward all around — and headed for the door as soon as I could walk.

These days, being knocked out is a single droplet into your IV. Before the discovery of the gases, they had you drink a quart of whiskey and then hit you over the head with the bottle, so I guess things are improving.

Su Lum is a longtime local reminded of the cartoon wherein the medical staff is competing to toss Q-tips into an etherized patient’s nostrils and one doctor complains, “No fair, you spit on yours.” This column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Email su@rof.net.


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