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World Anaesthesia Day – Your Life in their Hands

By Dr. Femi Ogunyemi, #The Pain Doctor

By the time you read this article, World Anaesthesia Day, would have gone, quietly, unnoticed, unrecognised and without applause.

Like its practitioners. 

Everyone remembers the Surgeon; few remember their Anaesthetist. Those who toil day (and night) to make great surgical feats possible; those who bring back people who have crossed the line between life and death; those who care for the severely ill whose organs have failed or failing; and those who remove sensation so that we do not feel pain……

These men and women do great and marvelous deeds, under unimaginable pressures, often with critical decisions made in split seconds, and almost always without accolade and ovation.

Globally World Anaesthesia Day takes place every year, on 16th October, the day ( Boston1846) a doctor named William Morton first demonstrated the use of a substance called ether to render a human senseless so that a lump could be removed from the man’s neck. Originally it was therefore named “Ether Day”.

Remember that sweet tangy smell typical of many hospitals decades ago? That was ether.

Sadly it was also an explosive and, today, is no more.

On 4th November 1847, a Scottish Obstetrician named James Simpson and two of his friends inhaled chloroform – experienced a light, cheery mood – and promptly collapsed.

On waking, Simpson knew he had found a successful alternative to ether. Chloroform was easier to use for anaesthesia but was later shown to be much more dangerous in overdose than ether.

On 11 December 1844, Horace Wells, a dentist from Hartford, Connecticut, witnessed a public

display of a man inhaling nitrous oxide. The man subsequently hit his shin on a bench – but as the gas wore off, he miraculously felt no pain.

Whilst under the influence of this “laughing gas”, Wells had his associate John Riggs extract one of his own teeth. Realizing that dental work could be pain free, Wells then tested his new method on over a dozen patients in the following week. He chose not to patent his method because he felt pain relief should be “as free as the air.” That decision gave the discovery of anesthesia to Morton 2 years later.

Barely a year after Morton, on 13 October 1947, Dr. JM Graham performed spinal anaesthesia on Albert Woolley and Cecil Roe. As a result of the surgery, both suffered permanent spastic paraparesis that blighted the remainder of their lives. The protracted court case that followed, with Prof. Mackintosh as a witness, probably delayed the introduction of spinal anesthesia; a technique that today is now an extremely safe practice for many operations below the belly button.

Nigerian historians tell us nothing about our early Anaesthetists.

We do not know how our first hospitals, like the Sacred Heart in Abeokuta, handled the surgeries of the era.

It wasn’t until March 1992 that the UK got its first Royal Charter for a separate and independent College of Anaesthesia. I was one of the early graduands under this new college in March 1994. “Before 1992, and in West Africa still today, the subspecialty of anaesthesia remains under the academic umbrella of the College of Surgeons.

UNILAG hosted the first academic department in Nigeria in association with Toronto in 1962.

It was initially headed by Prof. Shirley Fleming and then, in 1968, by Dr Fowler, a Nigerian.

This talented Nigerian, the father of a family friend, died only last year leaving a great legacy in our specialty. It was in the same 1968 that the academic department of anaesthesia was born in

Ibadan, my own alma mater. It was headed by Prof. Oduntan, whom I was privileged to have

been tutored, trained and nurtured by.

Our teachers then, to us, were among the pioneers of anesthesia in our country.

Ibadan, in the mid 1980s had trainers like Prof Akinyemi, Dr Magbagbeola, Prof. Mrs Soyannwo, Prof. Mrs Elegbe, the late Dr Famewo, Dr Odugbesan, Dr Mrs Sotumbi and Amanor Boadu.

Lagos, of course, had Prof. Mrs Ffoulkes -Crabb et al. Today, tonight and tomorrow, anaesthetists will be toiling, often with suboptimal resources, making surgery safe, delivering babies painlessly, relieving pain and saving lives.

Your life (physically) is truly in their hands. Just for one day only, they deserve applause.


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