My Life Part 6: Vaccines and Tonsils


This covers some assorted things that I don’t have a real “sequence” to, or that I had simply neglected to mention, on the last few parts.

Sometime before I started first grade, my mother took me to someplace I had never been before.  It was a long, low brick building and we joined a long line of people waiting to enter the building.  The people waiting were, like my mother, adults with one or more children in tow.  My mother said it was for vaccinations.  I, of course, had no idea what a “vaccination” was.

The line moved forward rapidly.   Eventually we reached a point where I could see what was going on ahead of me, and what was happening to the kids in front of me.


I was ready to bolt right there.  Those needles looked to my six year old eyes to be about a yard long.  Not me.  No thank you.  And this was before I had dealt with the dentist who gave me a pretty serious fear of needles.  The fact that they were needles was scary enough, without the need for any experience with ham-fisted folk inflicting exquisite pain with them.

My mother told me I was her brave boy, and it didn’t hurt, and… And while I had my doubts about that “didn’t hurt” part, well, I was her brave boy, wasn’t I?  I couldn’t let her down.  So I pressed my lips together and stepped up to the counter (it was a counter and not individual desks) when it was my turn.

First there was that yard long needle.  I don’t know what vaccines it was for, but it went into my shoulder and…didn’t hurt.  Next there was a needle that wasn’t attached to a syringe.  I got jabbed with this one several times in a small area, just enough to lightly prick the skin.  I remember it as being to the inside of my forearm but that can’t be right.  Mandela effect, I guess.  This would have been the smallpox vaccine and, therefore, would have been applied to the shoulder.  On reflection, I think I’m conflating the memory with a TB skin test I had some years later in fifth grade.

My mother told me that the area would blister and itch and that I must not scratch it otherwise it could get infected.

Well, it did blister (as smallpox vaccinations do), and it did itch.  But I didn’t scratch.  It was hard, but I avoided it.  Instead, what happened is that I was a very active six year old boy and in the course of play the bump on my shoulder tore off.  I’m pretty sure it was just a scab at that point but what did a six year old know?  I picked up the piece that had torn off and went running back home with it.  I remember my mother taping the piece back in place with a bandaid, but I doubt that happened.  It would have been filthy and not something you would put over a bleeding wound.  As I said, I’m pretty sure in retrospect it was just scabbing.  I suspect there was some slight of hand there to make me think my mother was putting the piece of my shoulder back in place while she simply bandaged the wound.

It did get infected somewhat, at least as my mother related the tale in later days, but I recovered and then had my smallpox vaccine scar.  It’s completely faded now.  Can’t find a trace of it.

Later, and still before “the dentist” (Part 5 of this series) while we were in school we were given some materials to explain why it was so very important to get vaccinated against Rubella, German Measles.  There were little comics about how a kid, not vaccinated, got it and passed it to a pregnant relative and, as a result, said relative’s child was born blind.  Scare stuff, but entirely valid.  So, once again we were lined up.  The procedure was slightly different this time.  Instead of a yard long (as it seemed to me) needle, they used the air guns to “blow” the vaccine through the skin.  And so we got the MMR vaccine.  One of the “M’s” was supposedly not operative for me.  My mother said that I had had mumps when I was younger but I have no memory of that.

The other medical issue of the time was tonsils.  Back then, mid to late 60’s, tonsillectomy was very common.  And with my recurrent sore throats made me an excellent candidate for one.  And, so, I went into the hospital for one, something Memorial Hospital (either gone or name changed in the interim–can’t find any “Memorial Hospitals” in or near Portsmouth now). I was in a semi-private room with another kid also in for tonsils.  We immediately become friends.

One of the things I remembered was my new friend and I thinking it would be a good idea to press the nurse call button “just because.” Well, we ended up being scolded by the nurse.

Eventually it became time for the surgery.  No food allowed that morning which was definitely disappointing to a growing boy.

My new friend’s turn was first.  Some folk came in and then I heard my friend set up a howling.  Shortly thereafter, they wheeled him out of the room and that was the last I ever saw of him. (He didn’t die nor was there anything sinister. We just ended up going separate ways after our respective operations and, well, the only thing we had in common was sharing a hospital room pre-op.)

Not long after, it was my turn.  I found out why he howled so.  Part of my immediate pre-op prep was to get a needle (didn’t see it, but I’m sure it was a yard long) jabbed into my rear end and the fires of Hell (although I never would have used that word back then) injected into my backside.

I howled.

Afterward my mother, who was there with me, told me what a brave boy I had been. (I’m not sure my mother quite grasped the concept of bravery.  Just kidding.  She was being a mother.)  After the injection, I was turned face up on a gurney (nowadays the beds themselves are on wheels and used to move patients) and I was wheeled into the operating room.

I am told that the injection was probably demerol and the reason it was so very painful is back then the approach was to give the injections quickly to “get it over with”.  The medicine being shoved into the muscle quickly causes pressure which makes it hurt more.  A more gradual injection (more common today) allows the medicine time to disperse and is less painful.

In the operating room they put a mask over my face and…Boom.  Lights out.

While I was out, I dreamed.  In my dream they were talking about having the surgery to take my tonsils out “tomorrow.” And so, when I woke, feeling groggy and just plain not very good at all, I saw my mother there and asked her if they were going to take my tonsils out tomorrow?

“They’re done.  They’re already out.”

And then I got sick.  I have since learned that I always get violently sick to my stomach after coming out of general anesthetic.  Always.  Anti-nausea drugs don’t touch it.  I get violently sick to my stomach when I come out of it.  This isn’t helped by the surgery being in my throat meaning I very likely swallowed a significant amount of blood.  As was explained to me by my ENT after nose surgery many years later, human blood is an emetic.  It makes most people sick.

And so, my throat hurt. (Gee, you think?) But I nevertheless went back to sleep.  When I awoke again, I asked the nurse looking in on me (didn’t touch the call button–I’d learned.) if I could have some ice cream.  You see, my mother had told me before the surgery that I could eat a lot of cold, soft foods like ice cream and Jello after it to help soothe my throat.  The nurse said the doctor had to check me before I could have anything to eat.  I didn’t complain.  I wasn’t really hungry, still groggy and uncomfortable.  I just wanted some ice cream because my throat hurt and I thought it might soothe it just like my mother had said.

So, a bit later that morning the doctor checked me and pronounced me fit to release.  And shortly after I had ice cream.  Chocolate.  In one of those little Styrofoam packages with the little wooden vaguely-spoon-shaped object.

And so, for the next two weeks I was eating mostly soft foods (eggs, grits–we were a southern family, grits was one of the four main food groups–, and yes, ice cream and jello).  Then we switched to “scratchier” (as my mother termed it) foods.  Hamburgers!  One of my favorites.  This was, I was told, to help “clear out” the stitches.  In retrospect, I am…dubious of this claim.  Since I did not go back to have sutures removed, I expect they used absorbable sutures (Dexon was available at the time).

I have been “under the knife” several times since then, most recently for nose surgery (deviated septum and issues with the “turbinates” that were causing breathing problems).  Every time, I’ve been seriously sick to my stomach afterward.

And to this day I am really, really reluctant to push that call button for anything short of imminent death.

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