A New World Odyssey, the First Recorded Surgery in Texas, and Hope in Hard Times

For the first time in the history of this country, life expectancy is on the decline, particularly among White males. There’s a lot of despair. I’ve been enjoying listening to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Check it out – I’ll talk more about it later.

I’ll also observe that my patients with the most awful problems who suffer the most also seem to be the most hopeful. I am constantly humbled by that. I have a patient with rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, a horribly painful leg ulcer and pulmonary disease on oxygen. She’s got such a positive attitude, and loves her job at a foster care agency. I have many patients like that.

Think about the people you most admire – the ones you know personally or the ones you have only read about. Did any of them have easy lives? I bet not. Most likely they had difficult lives that required them to overcome terrible adversity.

One amazing story of adversity and triumph is that of Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. More than 4 centuries ago, in November of 1528, he and some of his men survived a shipwreck off Galveston, where they were taken captive by the local Native American tribe. Their treatment was not kind. After escaping that, he spent years wandering across what is now Texas trying to reach the settlements of New Spain in Mexico.

Because he was an educated man with medical training, the Indians brought him a man suffering from a wound that had healed over an arrowhead perhaps lodged in his sternum.  Using a knife he carried at his waist, he performed the first recorded surgical operation in the New World. He later wrote, “The point was aslant and troublesome to take out… with great difficulty I drew the head forth. It was very large. With the bone of a deer, and by virtue of my calling, I made two stitches that threw the blood over me, and with hair from a skin I stanched the flow.”

The stitches were removed a day later and there was no infection, the man recovered fully, the bloody arrowhead went to other villages for viewing, his fame spread, and the event lead to Spain being given control over the entire region. By the time Cabeza de Vaca reached Mexico City in 1536, he and his companions had trekked more than 2,300 miles over 8 years. This New World odyssey, chronicled in his 1542 book “Relacion,” is considered one of the most remarkable journeys of discovery in history. It’s an incredible story of human endurance. It is also a reminder that when we are in the middle of a genuinely terrible ordeal, we cannot know what good may come of it unless we can just hang on.

So, don’t lose hope. And let me know what you think of Peterson’s book.

Further Reading:

“Frontier Medicine: Texas Doctors Overcome Disease and Despair” (Texas Medical Association)