Most everyone is familiar with the distinct fat feeling that comes with shots of local anesthesia.
I have felt that numbness in my lips and cheek many times. I think of snakes and spiders and the venom they inject, how their prey is powerless to the effects.
Perhaps its this kind of skittishness that kept my grandmother from ever getting a shot at the dentist. She was a tough woman, able to deal with pain better than most.
Luckily I’m not required to endure that torture. And neither are you. Whether it’s a dental visit or major surgery, we have anesthetics to keep the pain away.
We have many to thank for the technology of pain relief. But Crawford W. Long, a native Madison Countian, is first on the list. Those who know the old story can beg off here, but if you’re not familiar with Long, read on. As we celebrate Madison County’s bicentennial in 2011, it’s worth remembering this county’s most famous resident.
Most every Madison County resident has noticed the statue of Long that sits on the southern side of the old county courthouse in the center of downtown Danielsville. Also, the house Long was born in still stands in Danielsville off the street named after him.
As the inscription on his statue notes, Long was the “discoverer of the use of sulphuric ether as an anaesthetic in surgery on March 30, 1842 at Jefferson, Jackson County, Georgia ...”
That was 169 years ago this coming Wednesday, March 30.
The anesthetic was used that day on James Venable, who had a tumor removed from his neck. Long reportedly performed eight surgeries with ether before other doctors began copying him.
The 26-year-old doctor had the idea for using ether in surgery after some young people asked him for laughing gas and he gave them ether, noticing that they seemed intoxicated after using it and without pain when they staggered and fell. (I hear this and picture an early form of tailgating in Athens.)
Despite his accomplishment, there’s a debate over whether Long was actually the “father of anesthesia.” Some say it was William T. Morton, a Boston dentist, who used ether while removing a tumor from the neck of Gilbert Abbott, a Cambridge, Mass., newspaper printer in October of 1846 in front of a crowded amphitheater. In 1997, Time Magazine credited Morton as “the father” of anesthesia. The Crawford Long Museum in Jefferson wrote a letter to the magazine to point out their error, that Long was, in fact, the father of anesthesia. Time wrote back, acknowledging that Long used ether in surgery first. But Time maintained that Morton had greater stature in the field of anesthesia because he was “the first to demonstrate its (ether’s) anesthetic efficacy before an audience of fellow surgeons ...”
Whether or not he gets credit as the first, Long was clearly ahead of his time, a pioneer in medicine.
Strangely, nearly 170 years after Long’s historic surgery with anesthesia, scientists still don’t understand why anesthesia knocks us out.
Our faith in anesthesia is like our faith in flying. You put your life in a stranger’s hands in both. But the analogy holds true only if the pilot, mechanic and aircraft designer don’t know what keeps the plane aloft.
There are conflicting views about what actually happens when someone is knocked out by general anesthesia. According to an article I read in The U.S. News and World Report, the oldest theory is that anesthetics produce a temporary structural change in cell membranes that causes swelling and stifles nerve signals.
But most scientists agree that anesthesiology is much more complicated than that and they allow that anesthetics can have “varying effects.” The U.S. News and World Report article concludes that it “may be 20 years before they (scientists) really know what’s going on in a patient when he’s under.”
But I’d prefer a little uncertainty to the certain pain of knife on skin.
That’s what you had in store when you needed surgery before Crawford W. Long came along.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.