lblanchard: (swannfountain)
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We last left our intrepid explorers engaged in a comic-opera defense of the walled city of Siku. Meanwhile, the Chinese were responding to the depredations of the Tibetans and the brigands with a punitive military force, which dispatched the troublesome foes at the cost of some casualties. These were brought to Siku some few days after that defense, and the presumed medical expertise of Purdom and Farrer earnestly besought. One case required heroics.

The heroic field surgeon Bill Purdom, seen here in Chinese coolie garb somewhat later in time,
part of a subterfuge to gain access to a region where Europeans were forbidden

Our services were accepted with much gratitude, and even entreated specially on behalf of a smart young officer who, in reconnoitring over a hill upon a monastery beneath, had, in the very moment of turning to call up his troops, been caught by a bullet just in the heel, that had passed straight in behind and lodged firmly in the middle of the sole under the arch of the instep. It was a maddening case—a wound so trifling, yet so painful, and daily becoming more and more dangerous in the summer heat, with no means of dislodging the bullet and nothing to be done (in the absence of all anaesthetics) except to keep the opening of it as clean as possible. The patient went steadily from bad to worse, accordingly, and under the daily probings that we cautiously tried, his cries grew more and more irrepressible while the bullet remained no less immovable. Some local anodyne was produced, and proved of no more use than so much water. The pain and fever increased from hour to hour, and in the certainty of blood-poisoning there seemed only one end to be looked for—an end the more cruel in that its cause was so trivial and had so nearly been escaped altogether. However, we urged the commander to send down the Blackwater three days' journey to Kiai-jo, on the possibility that the Szechuanese there now in occupation might perhaps have some chloroform.

It was the one chance. We counted the hours till the answer should corne, hoping that it might not be too late. Already the whole foot and all the leg up to the knee was a huge, shapeless mass of dull violet. There seemed no hope, and the patient was passing towards his later stages, when at length half a bottle of chloroform did actually appear. There was not a moment to lose. The operation was arranged for early morning, and I anxiously rehearsed my duties as anaesthetist, flying for comfort to the little medical brochure that accompanies Burroughs and Wellcome's invaluable boxes of drugs. But here I found scant help for my ignorance. This was the instructive sentence that alone met my eye: "Except when a doctor is present, an ansesthetic must never be administered. It frequently happens, however, that in remote and isolated places the doctor may require the assistance of some non-professional friend. In such circumstances the layman must obey exactly the directions given by the doctor." Could any advice be sounder or more illuminating —except for its failure to recognise that some places may actually be so remote and isolated as not even to have a tame surgeon on the spot ? What a very high standard of civilisation does this not presuppose in the darkness of Africa, and those other tropical lands for which one would judge these boxes and books to be almost exclusively compiled, if one may reason from their complete blankness about any circumstances that might arise in Asia. However, there was no help for it: we must make the best of things.

So we donned butcher-blue gowns, and swabbed tables, and prepared basins of warm condied water, and set the razors and needles to stew, and did all the things we could think of, in fact, to make ourselves feel real workmen in the healing art. And in the grey morning the patient, convulsively retching with terror, was borne up by his orderlies and laid upon the table. The agitation was general and indescribable; the little uppermost yard of the Yamun was filled with a dense and quivering crowd. Out of what strange perversity of misunderstanding the European has plucked the notion that the Chinese are a wooden and unsensitive race I have never been able to understand. Probably it arises from the fact that the Chinese are, undoubtedly, philosophic and patient and acquiescent. But they are thus, not from any natural apathy, but from its exact reverse. The West is so uncultured that it cannot recognise the reality in any emotion that does not find some violent vent; in point of fact, the philosophic calm that the Chinese deliberately cultivate is their necessary armour to protect their excessive susceptibility to emotion. No race in the world is probably more swept with passions, in so devastating a way that the physical frame itself is often left a wreck. The Chinese would be for ever the victims of their nerves, had they not for four thousand years pursued reason and self-control with self-protective enthusiasm. And the result of a moral training that we cannot understand is an emotional attitude of mind that we are even less able to understand —an apparently lethargic stoicism which blinds us to the underlying tremulous excitability of the nerves which that wooden manner has been expressly devised to safeguard.

How imperfectly it does so, even in the northern races of China (in the southern it does not exist, and the Cantonese is as mobile as a Gaul), I was soon to have proof. The operation began; the patient lay extended, the cook holding his head, while I administered drops of chloroform out of a tabloid bottle with the screw lid pierced, upon the mask we had impro vised out of wire and the wreckage of a shirt. Through a varied series of grunts and gurgles and snores the patient sank into oblivion. I was conscious of the cook already growing green with terror at my elbow, and the attendant crowd half hysterical in suppressed excitement at these preliminary marvels. And then Purdom, at the other end of the table, began to wield the razor. Spouting cascades of foul black blood immediately jetted forth and deluged everything, and the crowd immediately scattered like a flight of hens from a hawk, running into every corner of the Yamun to be sick, or worse. As for the cook, he tottered and rocked as he stood, and the head went rolling from side to side, and I pursuing it with drops of chloroform that went " Clop, clop," all over the place in the agitation of the moment. Still the probings and pokings proceeded at the other end of the table. I kept my eyes as closely as possible to my own job, and cursed the cook in stimulating whispers, and counted the seconds that seemed like hours. Now and then the patient would float into the upper layer of unconsciousness, and the most ghastly snorings would ensue, to be instantly quenched by a more frenzied shower of drops. And then suddenly, from across the prone figure, Purdom looked up at me with a pale set face —he couldn't find the bullet. The situation really grew too tense. I eyed him appalled, and urged him for the mercy of Heaven to hurry up anyhow, and be done with it, and swab out the wound, and bind it up and hope for the best.

It was a grim moment, for without a bullet to show for our trouble, how were we to persuade the populace that all these horrific mysteries had not been a vain show-off? However, the foot was duly enveloped in a loose bale of wool, and the patient carried out on to the dais of justice to come back to life; while in the little yard the crowd once more returned, timidly, to inspect the red wreckage and mess, and make their interminable inquiries about the operation. At this point Purdom suddenly solved the mystery of the vanishing bullet from one of the basins of blood, with an appositeness that made me for a moment as incredulous as if he had found the Holy Lance. In that one wild instant I quite believed he had merely picked up a hand ful of gravelly mud from the yard. But no, that bullet had been, in fact, a conglomerate mass of pebble and grit and mud and all uncleanness, such as so frequently serves the darker purposes of lead in Tibet. In the upheavals of the operation it had, of course, disintegrated, and had burst out into the basin with the first flow of that pent-up corrupted gore. So all was well, and the patient proceeded immediately to make so calm a recovery that in a few days more he was on his way down to convalesce at Cheng-tu, borne in a sedan-chair and suitably attended. We received much glory and gratitude, a little damped a few days later by news that three stages down the road our client had, after all, had the ungraciousness to die. However, when we had sufficiently lamented over this we learned that our grief had been in vain, and that our patient was, in point of fact, in the best of health and spirits, having quite successfully achieved Cheng-tu, where he was undergoing treatment for the plantar bones of the foot, which had been split beyond our healing by the bullet.

On the Eaves of the World, Vol 1., pp. 291-296

page source for William Purdom image

Reginald Farrer the plant hunter will return next Monday, I think.
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