Macabre Dinner Party Game

Ok, so in early March my partner Paul received the dreaded Cancer diagnosis, which is always a shock. With him it was even more of a shock as he is one of the healthiest people I know - lives as a happy hermit in the bush in a cabin on the side of a mountain, eats all the vegies, does all the homesteading exercise, etc, etc. Then out of nowhere he turns yellow, is rushed to hospital with a blocked bile duct, and from there the blockage is diagnosed as a cancerous mass. The luck of the whole situation is that the cancer is Stage 0, which is the least amount of cancer you can have, huzzah. The difficult news is that cancer in the bile duct requires major, major surgery, a Whipple procedure, which means taking out the gall bladder, bile duct, part of the stomach and the head of the pancreas, as all of these organs are inextricably linked together. Then new connections are made with bits of the small intestine. It's one of the biggest surgeries around, ten hours. Anyway, the good news is he came through it brilliantly and his very good health and fitness and can-do attitude means he is making a good recovery, and he is back on his mountain again.

But here is the dinner party game I invented while he was in hospital - who sitting around this table would still be alive if the year was 1850? Paul would have thrived for the first 57 years of his life - he had never so much as had a broken bone - but right now he would be dead, not of cancer, but of a liver infection stemming from the blocked bile duct. A quick procedure inserting a stent and massive antibiotics via IV fixed that. Every day since late February has been a bonus day for him.

So I was at dinner with four other adults and four teenagers when I asked this question. One of the women would have died in childbirth as she had needed an emergency cesarean. Someone else required an emergency hysterectomy a few years ago to avoid bleeding to death. One of the guys had had a quadruple bypass two years ago. The other guy had had some kidney trouble but he thought he'd still be alive, had it been diagnosed correctly. He has just needed to go on a very low salt diet. I would still be alive but I have anemia that has only been resolved by going on the Pill, so I would have been one of those Victorian women languishing on the chaise longue.. Three of the four teenagers would be alive, the fourth, of course, would have died in childbirth with his mother. But also, in the here and now, vaccines and clean water may have saved the other teenagers from dying as children.

This is a macabre but interesting exercise. All of us around that table are healthy eaters and live fairly cleanly. None of us have 'lifestyle' diseases. The guy with the quadruple bypass is a skinny runner with what turned out to be really bad genes. But three out of five adults would have died without modern surgery, and one out of four kids. It is a sobering thought when contemplating the decline of healthcare. Seeing what went into Partner Paul's surgery was amazing. A team of about twenty were in the operating theatre and the ICU machines that went 'ping' to keep him alive were like magic. They can outsource a large number of bodily functions with machines during the recovery process. Paul had drainage bags and tubes coming in and out of him everywhere. But the resources that went into that kind of surgery are staggering, and would be available to very few of the world's population right now, let alone into the future..

So who wants to play? Would you still be alive right now if it were 1850 (let's assume we survived all the childhood diseases that the vaccines protect us from)?

1850 is merely a random number chosen because it is pre-reliable surgery, anaesthetics, antibiotics etc..

Sweet Tatorman's picture

I am pleased that prospects are looking very good for your Paul after the bad initial turn of events.
To your thesis.
In my case the answer is unknowable. In 1850 I would not have been struck by a car as a teenager but I suppose one might substitute an era appropriate transportation mishap such as run over by a wagon or fell off of a horse. As a side note, the physicist Pierre Curie was killed by being run over by a beer wagon. I have no way of knowing if I have ever been saved by the use of an antibiotic but I am glad they exist. Setting aside the unknowables, I would say that as a minimum in the absence of modern medicine I would be blind in one eye as well as a cripple.

I think it might be possible that I would be alive if I had overcome the many ear infections I had as a child, but very likely, I would be deaf. However, along with Sweet Tatorman, I am glad to have antibiotic's and it is possible they have saved my life.

I would be dead today. I had semi-emergency gall bladder surgery. It was, according to the ER doctor and whatever gizmo they used to "look" inside in pieces. Still sort of functional. Would a better diet have saved me from the trouble? I don't know.

Oldest child had his appendix out at fourteen. Dead at fourteen.

On the other hand, I had a deeply stressful pregnancy with him and developed pre-eclampsia when I went into labor. Would a better, less stressful lifestyle make the difference? In that case, maybe.

My father is still alive and he wouldn't be. Other relatives, friends, acquaintances would have died much younger.

My father says his mother (who died at about 76 in the mid-1970's) was very proud that all her children lived to adulthood. She was born around 1900 when many children never made it past the cradle.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Many times I have thought of this. If the several times I had strep throat had not killed me, I might have survived until bacterial pneumonia I had at 39. My 10 year old might have died with me as he had it as well..

My husband thinks he himself would have died from the asthma that hospitalized him at age 12. I'm trying to grow herbs good for asthma --just in case. Even this very day he is having trouble with it.

for reflection, that's for sure. I'm glad Paul is doing well and that the cancer was caught so early.

I was a preemie, though I'm uncertain how early. My mother swore she wasn't pregnant when she married, but I find it unlikely that I was born three months early. Ahem.

Anyway, I weighed about 4 pounds and had to be in an incubator for a while. I suppose that would've taken me out of the gene pool.

Other than that, I've been lucky, though I have availed myself of antibiotics for bronchitis.

Fascinating thought game, isn't it? Out of five respondents, two would definitely be dead, one maybe.. although there was basic understanding of how to treat preemie infants back in the day. The advice was to place the child between the mother's breasts, skin to skin, and feed with an eyedropper hourly until they could feed in the normal way. This would have been quite effective unless there were other complications, which there often would have been..
My parents are in their early seventies and have never had major health problems, although my mother would have no teeth left - she is paying for her dentist's holiday home.. My four grandparents lived into their late eighties and only one of them would have died earlier, from a heart attack in his sixties. It would have been very much a roll of the dice though, whether you lived or died. It still is, of course, but now, at least in our wealthy nations, the odds are stacked more in favour of life for a larger part of the population. Quality of life is a whole other story..

mountainmoma's picture

I havent had anything I would have died of. I did fall and fracture my plevis, but I just had to lie on the couch until it healed. My kids would have lived until adulthood.