The Tonsillectomy

In 1966 I had acquired a bass guitar, learned a few rudimentary bass patterns, and joined a little rock and roll group that was playing various gigs around Laramie, Wyoming. I’ll save the story of my life in the rock ‘n’ roll lane for another time, except to say this: my throat was not cooperating.  It seemed to be constantly sore, varying only in degree. It’s hard to sing the harmony part on “Mustang Sally” when your vocal cords are inflamed and your voice sounds like a raven cawing through a cheese grater.

I finally went to The Old Man and asked him to take a look. My Old Man had finished Medical School and his Internship in the late thirties and then served in the Army as a Doctor. After the war, he and my Mother moved their new family to Laramie where he hung out his shingle as a General Practitioner and Surgeon. I grew up the son of a small-town Doctor. So one Sunday Night, during a commercial break for the Ed Sullivan Show, holding a spoon as a tongue-depressor in one hand and a flashlight in the other, The Old Man took a look at my pipes.

“Your tonsils are kind of a mess,” he told me. “They’re swollen and pretty ugly. No wonder you get a lot of sore throats. We’d better have ’em out of there.”

He told me to go to his office in the morning and talk to his Nurse. She’d set everything up. I did, she did, and a couple of weeks later I walked into Ivinson Memorial Hospital and up to the window marked “Admissions.”

They put me in a room with two other guys. Ace, a talkative ranch hand, was there for a hernia operation that was to take place the next morning at about the same time as my own tonsillectomy. The other roommate didn’t speak, slept a lot, and spent his waking time in a cloudy haze, staring into space. I had never spent the night in a hospital before so the concept of being prodded awake every few hours to be asked if I needed a sleeping pill seemed a little weird.

“Since you don’t have a particularly strong gag reflex,” my nurse told me the next morning, “and you are 19 years old, we are not going to give you a general anesthetic.  Instead, you’ll be sitting up and awake.  That’s just in case a little blood runs down into your lungs. It’ll be easy for you to cough it back up.”

Somewhere inside my head is a bulletin board labeled “Things That are Going to Happen to Me in the Immediate Future.” It took a few moments to take down “Go to sleep and wake up without tonsils. Eat lots of pudding and ice cream” and pin up “It will be kind of like going to Dr. Zuckerman the Dentist and having a tooth filled. I hope the Old Man’s breath is better than Dr. Z’s.” I decided the nurse’s remark about the blood was just overstatement, but the pudding and ice cream remained in my expectations.

Then she gave me an injection and said she’d be back in a few minutes. When she returned, accompanied by an attendant pushing a gurney, I was as high as a red-tailed hawk floating on a summer updraft. I’ve always loved to watch cartoons and when I did, I’d wonder what it would be like to live in Cartoonland where everything was colorful and wildly amusing, where a stick of dynamite could go off in your hand and it would only turn you black and frizzled for a few moments, then you’d be whole again and ready for the next adventure. I don’t know what was in that injection (and it’s probably a good thing I don’t), but it was the ticket to Cartoonland I’d always been wishing for.

Through the hallways of Ivinson Memorial Hospital I giggled, waved at passersby, and asked the attendant and the nurse one silly question after another. I was wondering if I should stand up to ride this surfboard when we crashed through a double door into a dark room. The only illumination was several bright spotlights that lit up what looked like an old fashioned Barber’s chair. They got me off the gurney and into the chair and left.

Anxiety had already started to take the fun out of my hypodermic high when three threatening people wearing white masks and dressed in baggy, white, full body suits came out of the darkness around me. It was The Old Man’s voice that finally cut through my gothic fantasies.

“Okay, Tim, this is Nurse Whidbey, and I think you know Doctor Sullivan. He’s going to perform the tonsillectomy, I’ll just be here to assist.” Out of the murk I recalled being reminded of this. For obvious reasons, a surgeon will never operate on his own family unless it is an emergency and there is no one else there who is equally competent.

After several injections in the back of my mouth, I could feel the area around my tonsils go numb. Then, in short order, my mouth was full of surgical instruments. A wire noose was placed around the tonsil, then forceps  were attached to pull the tissue forward and the wire noose was steadily tightened as it cut deeper and deeper into the flesh.

I only knew two things. A steady stream of blood was running down my throat and much of it down the wrong tube. I coughed and sprayed blood all over myself and Doctor Sullivan. Repeatedly. The other thing I was aware of was pain – horrendous pain. I don’t know if they decided to save some money on anesthetic or what, but it became the job of both the Nurse and The Old Man to hold me down while Doctor Sullivan worked. I couldn’t scream, I was too busy coughing up blood.

When the one tonsil hung by only a few remaining threads, Doctor Sullivan picked up the forceps and twisted the tissue the rest of the way out. Then he clamped the wound, stitched it up, and set the loop and forceps on the other tonsil. Then he and The Old Man stepped back, looked me over, and laughed.

I suppose that to them I was a merry sight. Surgical instruments were sticking out of my mouth in all directions, the bib around my neck was soaked red, and my tears had washed tracks through the blood speckles on my face. Doctor Sullivan had to ask his nurse to clean the crimson mist from his glasses before he could start in on the second tonsil.

After the operation they kept me in the hospital for another twenty-four hours and during that time I learned a few things. One was that they had actually given me plenty of local anesthetic because when that wore off, every attempt to swallow was agony. Ice cream, pudding, and everything else I might have wanted was out. I even had a little tray to spit in so I wouldn’t have to swallow. More than once I remembered that string of sore throats that started it all and I’d look back on them with a feeling bordering on nostalgia.

In time I healed and within a couple of weeks I was back rehearsing with the band once more, happy to find that I could sing again. Perhaps not in always in tune, but lustily.

13 Replies to “The Tonsillectomy”

  1. Tim, I can relate to the tortured throat feeling post-op, no fun even though I had a general (ether, ugh!) at 5 or 6yrs old.
    I do remember, with a smile, that voice of yours, and your humor, that would put the whole room of TTC course participants (Belgium, ’74) in stitches. As soon as you stood up, opened your mouth and let out an “Ahh”…or was it “Uhh”, we would start cracking up, and be primed for the next crazy funny comment out of the mouth of Pelton!
    Rock On!

    1. I’m still a little embarrassed about that. I must have been working out some awful repressed showbiz karma. As soon as Jack and Rick called for questions, I had to get up. I couldn’t help myself. Near the end of the course, every day I’d get at least two or three notes passed to me with jokes on them people were too shy to blurt out themselves. The nadir came when Jerry Jarvis came to the Zon & Zee. Jack said, “Jerry, you should meet one of our C.P’s.” I grinned and put out my hand. “He’s our Course Clown.”

  2. Once again you hit your mark! I could relate! Sadly I was in my late 50’s when I had my tonsils out! I lived on ice cream for 30 days! What a miserable experience!!

  3. Tim, that is an interesting story! Since I never had my tonsils removed & now I’m 72 years old, it’s hard to relate. I’ve had other surgeries, but I was totally out & woke up pieced back together again. Ken had his tonsils out when he was a boy and I remember him eating ice cream & pudding afterwards.

  4. LOL – had mine out at age 3. They used gas – didn’t hurt – lots of ice cream – thoroughly enjoyed whole thing.

    1. Back in the day, it was common among General Practitioners to tell parents that it was best to cut ’em out of there when the tonsils were not yet infected and the kid was young. Kind of like circumcision – everybody got one.

  5. “…your voice sounds like a raven cawing through a cheese grater.” That one sentence should win a Pulitzer, if the world were fair and just.

    1. Actually, my current favorite is in a chapter of Headfirst,the novel that I’m working on. “He’s still as nutty as a squirrel turd.” Unfortunately, I may have to cut that chapter out. Dang.

  6. Downright visceral, Tim. Well writ. I could feel your pain… and pre-op excitement…

  7. I remember when you recounted this story to me shortly after it happened that you wondered about the size of the chunk of meat Doctor Sullivan had pulled out.

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