Monday, January 6, 2020
An unusual monument to human rights sits in a corner of the Boston Public Garden in downtown Boston.
The 40-foot-tall Ether Monument,installed in 1868, is the oldest monument in the garden. It commemorates the first use of ether as an anesthetic, a pivotal moment in medical history. A few blocks away from the monument, across the Boston Common and downhill toward the Boston harbor, the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia was conducted in the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. Boston dentist William Thomas Green Morton administered the ether, and doctor John Collins Warren then removed a tumor from an unconscious patient.
The Ether Monument depicts this breakthrough through the imagery of two connected figures: the Good Samaritan, holding in his arms an injured stranger he met on the road.
This past human rights day, December 2019, the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists invited its members to submit essays considering the question: Is anesthesia a human right?
The doctors who responded linked anesthesia not only to the human right to health but also to human dignity.
One doctor working in India wrote: "If healthcare is a human right does that mean anesthesia for surgery is also a human right?" She concluded that "[a]ll of us have the right to life, liberty, and security but we also have the right to safe surgery which is only possible with the provision of safe anesthesia." Another physician, practicing in Burkina Faso, observed that "[a]naesthesia makes it possible to eliminate pain, respect the patient’s dignity and facilitate adequate care."
In the U.S. today, many of us are accustomed to living with little or no pain, and if we do experience pain, we expect it to be addressed. Pain-relieving substances of all kinds are readily available, and medical personnel are often eager to help patients by offering prescriptions. Too much pain relief can be a bad thing if it's not needed, or if it has addictive qualities. But the Ether Monument reminds us how debilitating pain can be, what a momentous event it was when the pain-relieving properties of ether were successfully tested, and how lucky those of us with adequate health care are to have access to the human right to pain relief.