There were many things I had considered meditating on as my guest blog post come to a close, but the receipt of a link to a diary written by a mother who lost her child to a foreign body accident in 1917 had the power to displace all thought of possible musings. Instead, it seemed pertinent to use the occasion of the blog to share what had been just shared with me. The extraordinary first-person account
was written by Rose Diamant, the great aunt of Dr. Michael Rothschild, who happens to be the President of the ABEA (The American Broncho-Esophagological Association
), an organization founded by Chevalier Jackson. Dr Rothschild was recently in touch with me and took me to this story. But of course, it is more than a story, and the mother-author's decision to record in such detail the impressions of the final days of her two-year old son's life stands on its own as only a precious document can, as a trace of the raw and the real. The boy had accidentally inhaled a piece of walnut shell that eventually proved fatal, and I want to note that, according to the account, "the doctor [whom she took him to] ignored the suggestion, and said even if there was a piece, it was so small it would not hurt him." Even though we experience Chevalier Jackson's foreign body collection as a cabinet of curiosities — and there's no question that this is what it is — Jackson's mission was in fact to train his physician-colleagues to think of a foreign body not as an impossibility, a rarity, an odd, uncommon happening, but as a likely, commonplace, norm. He was on a quest to change an entire perceptual habit, and to replace disbelief with belief (in foreign bodies). He sought to bring foreign body ingestion into the realm of intelligibility. I close Swallow with the story of a four year old boy who had swallowed a coin, but whom no doctor believed when the coin failed to appear on x-ray. The boy lived the six remaining years of his life suffering various ailments caused by the foreign body, until, too late to be helped, he was finally believed, taken to Jackson's clinic where the foreign body was acknowledged but the boy could no longer be saved.
As Dr. Rothschild notes in his prefatory remarks to his great aunt's diary, in 1917, when Rose Diamant's child died, safe techniques for removal of foreign bodies in the lungs were "just being worked out by the famous Philadelphia surgeon Chevalier Jackson. Prior to the development of this endoscopic extraction technique, a foreign body in the lungs was essentially a death sentence, from progressive airway obstruction, infection, or the high risk of an open chest operation."
The diary entry lingers with me in so many ways: in one person's attempt to comfort the mother by telling her that she "was still young and would have other children"; in the image of Rolf playing with books in the family library, or the fact of his just learning to name the things of the world: he was "pointing out and naming everything that caught his attention. Now it was a tower and now a chicken, and then a clock would catch his eye. And then a horse and so on and he would name them all to me, and I would assent and question him." The desperate detail of Rose's husband being locked in the hotel bathroom; the remembered reflection of purplish early morning light, or the fact that the rooms where they cared for the child were drafty. The child's frenzied response to the sight of the nurse's cap. His mother's heart-breaking statement that "he knew her no more." The impression that his head was separated from his body. The wish that the nurse hadn't smiled.
Thanks to all the folks at Powell's Books for allowing me to share my thoughts these past five days! It's been a wonderful honor.