Sometimes I’m an idiot

By Carla Kelly

Sometimes I’m an idiot!

Oh yeah, moi, the idiot. Smart person. Two degrees. Old and supposedly wise. Well, not so much, when it comes to certain things.

In the annals of medicine, my recent procedure on three hammertoes was minor, indeed. Those little guys on my left foot had curled under and rendered walking painful. I’m planning to be in Yellowstone Park in a week or so, and I need good feet.

The podiatrist explained the deal, which involved a little slicing to insert small rods in those toes and flatten them out. He prescribed a hefty dose of something that got Purdue Pharma in lots of well-deserved trouble, but only if I needed it. Ibuprofen for later was recommended.

There would be some anesthesia involved, of the type to put me out for a brief time into a kind of la-la land where I would remember little and feel no pain. No biggy.

Well and good you say, but you don’t write historical fiction, and that’s what got me in trouble. Let me explain: I’ve written a number of books, principally The Channel Fleet Series for Harlequin, that involved early nineteenth-century medicine, particularly in The Surgeon’s Lady

My hero in this novel was Surgeon Philemon Brittle, a warranted officer in the Royal Navy whose “office” was what we could call a floating M*A*S*H unit. The only thing to render someone unconscious was laudanum, a powerful opiate, yes, but not always available, and it didn’t really cut pain. More commonly, a strap of leather in the mouth would keep the poor bloke on the operating table in the ship’s orlop deck from screaming loud and long before, if he was lucky, “blessed syncope” (As Philemon described it) rendered him unconscious.

Operating fast was also vital. Each second mattered to the poor bloke, briefly unconscious, needing a leg removed, or as in The Surgeon’s Lady, delicate surgical derring-do in the neck. A really good surgeon could remove a leg in twenty seconds. Trust me: You wanted a really good surgeon. And that neck surgery was done outside in bright sunlight, with the patient strapped into a tipped-back chair.

Post-op might involve some more addictive laudanum, plus the ginormous risk of infection from unwashed hands prodding about. Equally perilous: A piece of dirty uniform blown into a wound from a musket ball could render a man dead from gangrene.

I’ve never made the mistake of calling these surgeons incompetent; far from it. All my research, and it has been a mighty lot of research, has given me enormous respect for men (it was all men then, ladies), who practiced surgery to the extent of their knowledge. That was it.  They did all they knew how to do, based on where medicine had progressed. To me, The Surgeon’s Lady, The Wedding Journey, and Doing No Harm, tales of the Napoleonic Wars, are cracking good stories with a prodigious amount of medical research. I am probably prouder of those books than any others I have written because I know how much research was involved. 

I moved 70 years ahead to 1876 when I wrote Her Hesitant Heart, with its U.S. Army surgeon at Fort Laramie calling the medical shots. Some things had improved by then; others not. Major Joe Randolph did the best he knew how. That’s what the good ones did.

Interspersed with all this fiction was a very real project for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, researching the infrastructure of Fort Buford, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. My best sources for this were often the post surgeon’s monthly and annual reports. These were gold mines of post-Civil War medicine and garrison hygiene. Thank you, gentlemen. 

I know my subject: 19th-century medicine, in all its rough and ready, gruesome glory. And therein lies the problem. When I found myself recently faced with totally minor surgery of the 21st-century variety, I did a quiet freak out as my years of 19th-century research took over. All I could think of was that strap in the mouth, being tied down to prevent thrashing about as the surgeon poked and prodded, the high probability that I would die of gangrene, and the pain, oh the pain.

Silly me. None of that happened, of course. Dr. James, my podiatrist, said the whole mundane thing took about 30 minutes, during which I was merrily inhabiting some pleasant place brought to me courtesy of better living through chemistry. Yeah, it did hurt afterward, but remember, I’ve been toughened by 19th-century medicine and only took two of those super-duper pills that end in –odone. Just two? Dr. James told me I had nerves of steel.  Little did he know. I wasn’t about to embarrass those men I wrote about in the aforementioned novels, plus the St. Brendan series. Those characters of my own making deserved the best from their creator.

Probably the least fun of all this was The Boot. Das Boot. (Well, it felt as big as a submarine.) The first week, I had to wear the dratted thing to bed. And to shower, I had to strap a lengthy plastic glove on my leg. Getting the stitches out after two weeks did hurt a bit, but hey. 

That boot. I thump-tapped around, wore a long skirt to church to disguise the monstrosity, and tried not to complain. I don’t miss The Boot, now that I’m bootless and able to shower like a human. The toes are still a bit swollen, but it’s summer and I have sandals.

I kept the boot. Maybe I’ll need it again to subdue some other curly toes. Mostly I want to look at it now and then and remind myself that times have changed, and I shouldn’t let my novelist’s imagination play merry hell with me. Sheesh, what an idiot.