A carpenter friend recently showed me a gruesome scar on his arm that was the result of some surgery he performed on himself with a sewing needle without any form of anesthetic! He said he played doctor and sewed up the nasty cut himself because he had no insurance and felt qualified because he’d once sewn some sails. From the looks of his arm I can only assume the sailboat subsequently capsized or ran aground.
It’s only in the last 100 years that people, like my friend, haven’t had to be their own doctor. If a cowboy in the 1800’s was seriously sick, kicked by a horse, wounded by an Indian or run over by a stampede he was simply out of luck. And out of time.
Early in our nation’s history doctors were as scarce as tuba players in a submarine, and even if one could be found the sawbones performed most operations without any anesthetic. If you don’t count the whiskey, that is. Now days when people go to the doctor for an ingrown toenail it’s hard to imagine that women had their babies at home and the only provision for pain was a stick they could bite down on. You couldn’t have found a log big enough for me to chomp on! And you think you have it bad because you have to read old magazines and wait awhile to see a doctor?
In the days of old there were no urgent care facilities or emergency rooms and if the doctor came at all it wasn’t until you were nearly ready to be cultivated under. In this day of Dr. Oz and Viagra, when there seems to be a pill for every inconvenience and a TV telethon or walkathon for every ailment, it’s hard to imagine that the best the pioneers could do was apply a poultice of fresh cow manure. If they sprained an ankle they wrapped the joint in brown paper, soaked it in vinegar and slept with their head pointed north. Often times the people used the same treatments they used on their livestock. Cowboys got the same cure as the horse they were riding. If you were wormy you took a thimble full of sheep wormer and if you ached all over you applied a little Sloan’s Liniment for Livestock. It contained turpentine and “sassafrassy” and was said to cure bruises, kicks, flatulent colic and bumblefoot. I’ve been tempted to try it once or twice myself.
Just like my buddy who sewed himself up, the pioneers improvised a lot. They were practicing holistic medicine long before anyone ever heard the phrase. In an era when doctors with tiny cameras boldly go where no man has gone before, it’s hard to imagine that people once bled, purged and puked themselves to better health. The doctors of the nineteenth century seemed to believe that a person could not get well without a sufficient amount of pain being suffered first. And maybe they were right.
You may hate the dentist but at least you have one. If the old-timers had a toothache they jumped up and down so the blood would go to their feet and then pulled a tooth or two with a pair of horse nippers or hog ringers. If a limb needed to be amputated the only anesthetic was to have a fat man sit on the patient. Allergies and cosmetic surgery? Forget it. If you broke a leg you had a lifelong limp; a broken rib and you suffered every time you breathed for the rest of your life. If you had an excess of sagging body parts you lived with them. Hypochondriacs didn’t stand a chance.
Some things never change though. In a letter to his family in 1849 a California miner wrote, “Have now paid all my gold to the Doctors and they leave me worse in health.” See what I mean? Who knows, maybe a lot of lives were saved back when folks didn’t have access to all the over-doctoring that goes on now days.
By the time our leaders in Washington get through messing up our healthcare system, the way things are headed we’ll have to anesthetize our cattle to brand them but you and I won’t be able to get in to see a doctor. We could find ourselves living once again in a society where the rule of thumb will be, “Cowboy, heal thyself.”
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