Samuel Pepys had surgery to remove a bladder stone when he was twenty. He had seventeenth century surgery, the only type available in his day. Joseph Lister was busily pioneering antiseptic surgery less than a mile from where Pepys lay tied to the bedposts, but Lister refused to offer his new techniques to Pepys’ physician, using all the old excuses – “my techniques are too new, my methods are untested, I’m living two hundred years in the future,” blah, blah, blah.
The pioneers of anesthetic surgery were likewise unhelpfully unborn, but had the additional excuse of working in a whole different country. So Pepys’ doctor used what science he had: he got his patient drunk, tied his legs to the bedposts and stabbed and sawed away until, in a gush of blood and urine, out rolled a stone the size of a tennis ball.
Pepys survived the surgery, for some reason, and celebrated the removal of the stone each year with a party on the same March day. And each year at that party, in the center of the table of hors d’oeuvres, mounted in a stunning teak box, sat the guest of honor, the founder of the feast – the stone itself.
I had my gall bladder removed yesterday. Thanks to a hundred medical advances since the 17th century, I don’t even remember being tied to the bedposts. Four standard Band-aids now cover the relative pinholes through which a tiny camera and three tools were deployed to remove the mutinous thing. I was advised to avoid fried chicken for a while and sent home.
In the weeks leading up to the surgery, I had to decide whether to worry about dying on the table. There’s no such thing as minor surgery, of course. Google the phrase “routine gall bladder surgery” and you’ll find the phrase “what was supposed to be” pinned to the front of it, over and over, in articles on the deaths of Andy Warhol, Dan “Hoss Cartwright” Blocker, and Congressman John Murtha. Another gentleman was rendered paraplegic by the same surgery, and a woman sustained severe brain damage. It happens when one of the tools nicks the large intestine. Infection sets in, then sepsis, then, sometimes, death.
Connor (14) caught wind of these stories somehow — possibly by overhearing me — and began to worry about his dad. It was a great opportunity to chat about one of my all-time favorite insights: the news paradox.
I don’t even remember who first brought the news paradox to my attention, but when it comes to ramping down our collective paranoia, it’s hard to beat. There are countless real dangers in the world, things that have a high statistical likelihood of taking us out of the game. But those common killers (like car accidents and smoking) don’t make the news, because they are common. Something that actually hits the collective radar is uncommon by definition — otherwise it wouldn’t be newsworthy.
So a good rule of thumb: If you read about a threat in the newspaper or hear about it on TV (like terrorism or mad cow disease), you can generally relax. It’s almost certainly not going to find you. It’s those things you don’t hear about, those pedestrian everyday killers, that you should worry about.
Once I heard the names of the same three celebrity gall bladder victims for the fifth or sixth time — Andy Warhol, Dan Blocker, John Murtha — I knew the news paradox was in play and began to relax. When someone dies during open heart surgery, it’s sad, but it doesn’t shock. But when a handful of people go down after a “supposedly routine” operation, it leaps to the top of our consciousness.
Over 500,000 gall bladders are removed each year, 99.9 percent of them without incident. So yes, there was a risk, but the very newsworthiness of the times it went wrong comforted me. And my boy.