Saturday, January 22, 2011

"The poor breast was no where discoloured"

I just came upon Fanny Burney's account of her mastectomy -- without anesthetics -- in a very peculiar letter to her sister. (The Wikipedia page on Burney has a section titled "Life in France: revolution and mastectomy" so apparently this is a pretty well-known document.) I can't find the full letter online anywhere, but Google books has a reasonably generous preview. Apparently Burney spent a while putting off surgery and being treated by other means -- it's not clear what these were except that they were meant to "dissolve" the tumor -- and was eventually told she'd have to be operated on, whereat
[she] was as much astonished as disappointed -- for the poor breast was no where discoloured, and not much larger than its healthy neighbour. 

Hrm! Well, fortunately the doctors went ahead and performed the operation and Burney lived another 30 years or so. Her account of the operation itself rings true and is mildly disturbing:
When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound - but when again I felt the instrument - describing a curve - cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left - then, indeed, I thought I must have expired.

I attempted no more to open my Eyes, - they felt as if hermetically shut, & so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into the Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over - Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed - & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered - Again all description would be baffled - yet again all was not over, - Dr Larry rested but his own hand, & - Oh Heaven! - I then felt the Knife tackling against the breast bone - scraping it! - This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, - (all others guarded a dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to pronounce if anything more remained to be done; The general voice was Yes, - but the finger of Mr Dubois - which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive was the spot - pointed to some further requisition - & again began the scraping! - and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a peccant attom - and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after atom.
Also Burney-related: (1) Ray Davis at the wonderful pseudopodium has an e-text of Burney's play The Witlings, which I've just started reading. (2) For my unenthusiastic response to her best-known novel Evelina see here. That post is annoyingly written even by my standards but I agree with the bits that are actually about the novel.

No comments: