World’s oldest surgery

Trepanning is the world's oldest surgery. A procedure in which a hole up to two inches in diameter is cut in the skull, trepanning is known to have been performed at least 8,500 years ago, and trepanned skulls have been found all over the world.

Why it was performed all those years ago is a mystery. Healing at many of the wounds tells us that at least some subjects survived — and in some places, there were many subjects.

Perhaps the ancients knew that trepanning, also known as trephination, could relieve pressure on a swollen brain. Perhaps they were hoping to rid one of their clan members of evil spirits, or cure mental illness, or clean up a head wound.

Trepanning has been performed throughout history. A modern trephination movement, founded in the Netherlands in the 1960s, holds that cutting a hole in adults' heads allows their consciousness to expand. That movement has its adherents in the United States as well.

All aboard!

Remember, dear reader, I said there would be tangents. Now we are embarking on a trip to Baltimore, Md., and childbirth will barely be mentioned for a while.

Locomotion

In his groundbreaking 1982 book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Paul Starr plumbs the source of mainstream medicine's authority. Simply put, it comes from the public's dependence on the doctor's superior competence, real or perceived.

As the title of Starr's book suggests, doctors were not always able to lay claim to that authority. Indeed, before the germ theory was proved and methods of administering anesthesia devised, making possible the development of effective surgery, physicians had very little to offer. (That didn't keep them from practicing, though.)

But in Baltimore, late in the 19th century, with new technologies and understandings developing rapidly on all sides, events were unfolding that would help solidify the medical profession's authority.

Image by permission  http://creativecommons.org

Can the VBAC make a comeback?

Let's interrupt our Women's History Month programming to consider the news. The National Institutes of Health today begins a three-day session on vaginal birth after Caesarean, a hot topic, given that this practice, which was commonplace 15 years ago, has become scarce in the United States, at the same time that the Caesarean section accounts for nearly one-third of American births.

The VBAC has some passionate champions. While it isn't for everyone, it can work for many mothers, enabling them to avoid major surgery, and perhaps also to enjoy birth as they have always imagined it. The VBAC's decline has attended a steady rise in reliance on the Caesarean section, in part because the VBAC does carry a risk of rupture to the uterus, which can be life-threatening.

So it will be exciting to see what comes out of this conference, which aims to bring the best research available to bear on determining the safety and efficacy of the practice.

The VBAC is also one subject of an article by Denise Grady in the New York Times on Sunday, about a hospital in Tuba City, Ariz., where 32 percent of women who previously had Caesarean sections delivered vaginally, compared with a national average of less than 10 percent.

The rate of Caesarean births at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corp., where about 500 babies are born a year, is 13.5 percent, less than half the national rate of 31.8 percent. The hospital is run by the Navajo Nation and is partially funded by the Indian Health Service, and it largely serves a Native American population.

What I love about Grady's account is how well this small, poor hospital appears to be doing in addressing one of the major tensions in the modern birth story -- how to keep the blissful experience of childbirth from being swamped by the technology that has been developed to keep it safe.