Sunday, June 14, 2009

The day pain died

The following is excerpted from a recent article in the Boston Globe: The day pain died. It illustrates the kind of obstacles that are still preventing us from getting mastery over suffering.

"The date of the first operation under anesthetic, Oct. 16, 1846, ranks among the most iconic in the history of medicine. (...) The room at the heart of Massachusetts General Hospital where the operation took place has been known ever since as the Ether Dome (...). What the great moment in the Ether Dome really marked was (...) a huge cultural shift in the idea of pain. Operating under anesthetic would transform medicine, dramatically expanding the scope of what doctors were able to accomplish. What needed to change first wasn't the technology - that was long since established - but medicine's readiness to use it. Before 1846, the vast majority of religious and medical opinion held that pain was inseparable from sensation in general, and thus from life itself. Though the idea of pain as necessary may seem primitive and brutal to us today, it lingers in certain corners of healthcare (...). In the early 19th century, doctors interested in the pain-relieving properties of ether and nitrous oxide were characterized as cranks and profiteers. The case against them was not merely practical, but moral: They were seen as seeking to exploit their patients' base and cowardly instincts. (...) The "eureka moment" of anesthesia, like the seemingly sudden arrival of many new technologies, was not so much a moment of discovery as a moment of recognition: a tipping point when society decided that old attitudes needed to be overthrown. It was a social revolution as much as a medical one: a crucial breakthrough not only for modern medicine, but for modernity itself. It required not simply new science, but a radical change in how we saw ourselves."


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