Right now, I’m in the middle of a daughter’s post-surgery recovery. It’s going well, all things considered, but a couple of small bumps heightened my alertness . . . and made me consider what we do when we cut.
It’s said that surgery is healing by means of a knife. Oxymoron, certainly. But who would – given the alternatives – not wish to get rid of a life-threatening tumor, for example, if the best method for ridding oneself of it were to literally cut it out of the body? We haven’t yet reached a place where medical knowledge and technology have fully replaced using the knife, though advances since the 1970s are extraordinary. Sometimes, breaking the skin is what’s needed.
Unfortunately, that gets us into a whole different realm, because surgery breaches the body’s largest organ and first line of defense, the skin.
In June, the skin on my forearms went through a series of unfortunate events. Branches ripped into it, tools fell on it, thorns ripped at it. Even bandages removed caused tears (memo to self: never, ever, buy cheap band-aids again). None of the injuries were big, and luckily, since I’m in good health, none became infected.
But they could have. Rewind a hundred years. In 1911, any one of those injuries might have hosted horrible bacteria that my body (possibly ill-nourished as are many women’s bodies in contemporary Asia and Africa) would have had problems fighting. Antibiotics were non-existent in 1911, so the best we could have done is advise bedrest, hydrate well, apply natural antibacterials like honey or onions, hope the patient’s immune system was strong enough to fight . . . and pray.
When the skin is breached nowadays in a hospital setting, the body confronts armies of foreign bacteria (some extremely resistant to drugs and especially prevalent in hospitals). That’s why antibiotics are routinely prescribed for the patient, and are begun immediately, so they give the body’s own immune system a boost. If antibiotics were unavailable, we’d be in almost the same position we were in a century ago – unable to fully control the ravages of infection.
Now, think about that chicken leg you ate last week. That chicken was probably raised in an overcrowded battery farm where disease was so rampant that antibiotics were given in feed, as preventive medicine. But giving preventive antibiotics only makes bacteria stronger. They become so strong – like MRSA – that they become resistant to antibiotics. The body then cannot get the antibiotic boost, post-surgery, that it needs to help its own armies fight off the hordes of bacterial invaders.
I, for one, don’t want to return to 1911, when every extended family, no matter how wealthy, lost members (especially women who’d just given birth) to raging infection. We need to stop the use of preventive antibiotics in food production, and advocate for healthy amounts of space for animals that will be eaten. Eating less meat will also help, as the pressure to produce more and more flesh, added to a business model that insists more is always better, brings forth crowded conditions.
Breaking the skin has consequences. Let’s make sure they’re beneficial ones.