Jan 27, 2016

Ventura Gets Chloroformed

Stories like this have to be prefixed with “those were different days back then” and they certainly were. This happened in the late 1940s in the small city of Camaguey, Cuba, but I think it could have also have occurred in any small town here in the U.S. It is unimaginable that this could happen today.

Joaquin Ventura Martínez
Joaquin Ventura Martinez, lawyer and gentleman rancher, was feeling poorly. He was suffering sharp pains in his abdomen and was running a low-grade fever. So he called on his doctor, who diagnosed cholecystitis and told him to schedule a consult with a surgeon he recommended.

 “No, that’s not going to happen,” he said, thanked the doctor for his time, and left.

He was back to the doctor a few days later, with worse pain and jaundice. The doctor sent him off to the hospital for x-rays which confirmed gallstones, but Ventura said he was not going to have surgery, refused to wait for the surgeon, and left the hospital with some painkillers. The radiologist telephoned his doctor and told him what he had said.

There were none of those pesky HIPAA medical privacy rules back then so when the doctor finished his call with the radiologist he dialed Ventura’s house and asked to speak with his brother Antonio Martínez.  He asked Antonio if there was a time later that day when he was sure that Ventura was not going to be home. He wanted to come by to discuss something with him and Ventura’s wife, Elia Rodríguez.

The doctor knocked on their door at the appointed time and after a bit of smalltalk, he came to the point. He explained the severity of the situation and asked them to convince Ventura to agree to the operation, or at least to convince him to come back to see him so he could try again to talk him into having his gall bladder removed.

Ventura was a mild-mannered man, but he could be stubborn. The best they could do was to get him back to the doctor’s office.

By coincidence, of course, both his wife’s cousin and surgeon, Dr. Camilo Doval, and his future son-in-law and gastroenterologist, Dr. Benito H. Prats, happened to be visiting the doctor in his office at the exact time when Ventura came in. They showed him the X-Rays and the three of them took turns explaining that his gall bladder could get infected and gangrenous and he could die. He needed surgery immediately. There was no other treatment.

“It’s just a little indigestion,” he insisted. “No one is going to cut me open until AFTER I draw my last breath!”  And he stormed out of the office.

He left them no choice. A plan was hatched by the three doctors and put into play immediately.

The next morning Ventura was called to the hospital on some pretext or other. Maybe a hospital administrator wanted to consult with him about a real estate transaction, or a change to his will. As he walks into the lobby he is attacked by a pair of orderlies who chloroform him!

Another version of the story goes that while he was chatting with an administrator in a hospital hallway, the anesthesiologist sneaks up behind him and sticks him with a hypodermic. Two orderlies catch him as he loses consciousness, hoist him on a waiting gurney and roll him directly into the operating room.

Needless to say the operation was a success and his recovery was complete. He lived a long life, moved to Maryland in 1968, and died in 1987 at 89 years of age.

In my mind, this story plays like a Three Stooges movie.  I see Moe as the anesthesiologist with Larry and Shemp as the orderlies, cackling as they rush the gurney down the hall an into the operating room. Ventura is played by Edward Everett Horton, the long-suffering straight man in many 1930 movie comedies.
Edward Everett Horton
The Three Stooges
Postscript. When I circulated this story for comments, Ventura’s youngest daughter told me another story about Ventura and his encounters with the medical profession that echoed this one. A number of years after the gallstone affair, Ventura developed an abdominal hernia and, as an alternative to surgery, he was prescribed a belt with a padded device on it that resembled an earmuff that rested on the hernia and kept the fold of intestine that was trying to escape where it belonged.  Unfortunately, sometimes when he coughed, sneezed, or laughed too hard, some gut escaped, and he needed to rush to the emergency room because of the pain to have it looked at.

You see, every time he went to the emergency room and the nurses made him comfortable in the examining room while he waited for the doctor, propping him up on pillows and elevating his legs, the hernia retreated on its own. The belt was reapplied, and back home he went. It was a small trouble to avoid surgery, he thought.

His wife Elia got tired of hearing him complain and tired of the worry and disruption to routine every time he had to dash to the the hospital, so she gave her cousin Camilo the surgeon a call and told him that the next time he was called to the hospital during one of Ventura’s episodes, he should pretend to agree with whatever Ventura was telling him, knock him out with some anesthesia, and do the operation. “Just get it over with,” she said, “Please!”

And he did.

Another Postscript. Ventura, now in his 80s and living in Bethesda, Maryland, was getting tired of  hearing his doctor telling him again and again that he really needed to quit smoking. The doctor was also getting tired of his words falling on deaf ears. So one day the doctor suggested that if he really would not quit, he should at least smoke filtered cigarettes.

Ventura smoked Camels, a very aromatic cigarette. He bought them at Bradley Drugs, where every morning he also picked up a copy of El Diario Las Americas, the Spanish language daily newspaper from Miami— they had a newsstand that catered to expats. Too bad they did not know how to make a cafecito. No shop or restaurant in Bethesda knew how to make a Cuban coffee or even an Italian espresso back in the 1980s. He would have to go home with his newspaper and Camels and make it himself.

Finally, to shut the doctor up, he switched to filters, complaining to anyone who would listen that “they don’t taste like anything!” But after a week or two, he stopped complaining. Maybe he had resigned himself to smoking the tasteless cigarettes.  But if you watched him carefully when he lit up you'd know why he stopped complaining.

Ventura’s solution: he kept a plastic toothpick stashed between the outer cellophane and the wrapper of his pack of Camel Filters. And when he tapped out a cigarette to smoke, without drawing any attention to himself — but not trying to hide it either — he would fish out the toothpick and punch a hole in the center of the filter, return the toothpick to the pack, and proceed to light the cigarette. It was the “chink and flare” sound of the Zippo lighter that drew the room's attention to him as he lit his cigarette, and by then the toothpick was already tucked away, waiting to help unlock the flavor of the next cigarette.