Yesterday I had minor abdominal surgery – but ‘major’ enough that I was put under general anesthesia. It’s the first surgery that I’ve ever had (not counting a tonsillectomy that I had when I was four years old). And although today I’m still far from being physically 100 percent (no going to the gym for three weeks – damn!), I now feel surprisingly good and relatively ambulatory given that just yesterday part of my lower abdomen was sliced open and my innards fiddled with in ways that nature never intended.
Never during this procedure did I suffer acute pain. Some significant discomfort, yes – especially about 12 hours after the surgery was completed – but nothing that was remotely unbearable. And why? Anesthesia, of course. And antiseptics that prevent infections. And pain-killers – mostly, for me now, over-the-counter Advil. Clean and disposable bandages are also part of the deal, along with highly trained and skilled professional specialists, from my surgeon to the anesthesiologist to the RNs to the hospital staffers who handle the likes of hospital billing, scheduling, and maintenance.
As recently as 100 years ago I likely would have had to endure my ailment for the rest of my life, with it making daily living for me increasingly more painful, challenging, and life-threatening. Now this ailment will soon be history for me. By no later than one month from now it will be as if I never suffered this ailment.
Indeed, I’m quite certain that even 30 years ago my surgery would have been a bit more dangerous – and likely more pain-intensive – than it was in 2013.
Fun fact: no stitches were used on me. In place of stitches, the surgeon sealed my surgical cut with surgical glue  – a product that strikes me as an ingenious and superior substitute, in many circumstances, for stitches. (I did a quick google search on the history of surgical glue, but came up empty. I suspect – although I can’t be sure – that this stuff is relatively new. I don’t think it was around in the mid-1970s, when middle-class Americans’ standard of living allegedly peaked and only to, at best, plateau since.)
Another fun fact: to take my temperature, a nurse simply rubbed a wand across my forehead. It took, literally, no more than one second, and the digital temperature read out was immediate. This wand reminded me of something that “Bones” or Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek might use to take a patient’s temperature. No thermometer in my mouth or other orifice. No waiting even as long as minute. Nope. Wave the wand gently across the patient’s forehead and, voila!, an accurate and instantaneous read out of that patient’s bodily temperature. Until yesterday, I had never before seen such a thermometer wand.
I’m quite sure also that were I more knowledgeable about the details of modern medicine I would have noticed many more things during my medical procedure – from my visit to the general practitioner who referred me to the surgeon until this very moment with me lying on a couch having just downed two tablets of Advil 24 hours after the surgery – that either did not exist twenty or thirty years ago or that are vastly improved today over their 1990s or 1980s or 1970s versions.
To decide whether you really believe the wonks [who insist that middle-class Americans’ living standards have stagnated over the past few decades], ask yourself the Garett Jones question : if Doc Brown’s DeLorean shows up at your door and offers to take you to 1989 and give you a job and income that would put you in the same national percentile as your current income, would you take the offer? Was the quality of medical care, transportation equipment, computers, and communications technology in 1989 good enough to make you better off? I think the honest answer for most people–probably not all, but most–is no. And if the answer is no, then our price deflators aren’t delivering welfare measures, at least over many decades (by the way, I played with some other deflators on the income data, and some do make the data look better–but none make the data look great).
Relatedly, see this 1995 essay by Dr. Leonard Metildi .