A strange tale

Today’s tale is a ‘news in brief’ item published by The Medical Standard in 1895:

Drs. Hart and Watts of the Bellevue Hospital staff report a case in which a machinist working at a wire machine heard something snap and felt a violent pain in his arm. The pain became so intense that he was brought to Bellevue Hospital.

Bellevue Hospital, founded in 1736, is the oldest hospital in the US. It started life as an almshouse, but by the early 19th century had become a general hospital with its own medical school.

On examination a small puncture was found on the wrist, which on being probed, was found to contain a piece of lead wire. Drs Hart and Watts opened the arm and found that no less than eleven feet of wire were coiled tightly round the arm above the elbow. The patient is rapidly recovering. He was unaware that the wire was imbedded in his arm until its discovery by the doctors.

Alas, this is all the detail offered in the learned journal. For more information I consulted a contemporary newspaper, the Harrisburg Telegraph:

a strange tale

The strangest thing that has come to light in Bellevue Hospital since the finding, a few years ago, of a set of false teeth embedded in the heart of a woman who had died suddenly, was revealed last Monday, December 24th, in an operation performed on John Scanlon.

Hold on a moment! False teeth embedded in somebody’s heart? Yes, it really happened, though the patient was a man. The case was reported in 1864 by Dr Alonzo Clark at a meeting of the New York Pathological Society:

The accident had occurred to a patient at Bellevue Hospital, who, while asleep, had accidentally swallowed his set of false teeth. The irregularly-shaped mass, lodging low down in the oesophagus, ultimately worked through into the pericardium, where it excited extensive inflammation, which eventuated fatally.

It may come as little surprise to learn that the unfortunate patient was an alcoholic. One of Dr Clark’s colleagues issued this stern warning:

Gentlemen, do not go to bed with false teeth in, nor get drunk before you place them in your pocket.

Sound advice. Anyway, back to the matter in hand: Mr Scanlon, the patient admitted just before Christmas, 1894:

Scanlon came to Bellevue last Saturday morning, suffering with what everyone, including himself, supposed to be a bad dislocation of the left elbow joint. When he was operated upon last Monday, however, the doctors pulled from his forearm, in pieces from half an inch to a foot and a half in length, eleven feet of lead wire one sixteenth of an inch in diameter.

Good grief. How did that get there?

Scanlon is a brawny machinist, 30 years old, in the employ of the East River lead company. Until Saturday he had charge of the machine that makes the wire found in his arm. The machine is essentially a steel box, from which molten led is forced through an aperture or die, one sixteenth of an inch in diameter, by hydraulic pressure of six hundred tons. The stream of lead before it reaches the air hardens into a long thin wire which is afterward wound upon a wheel. At times the aperture becomes clogged and the stream of lead stops. When this happens the attendant seizes the wire in his hands and sets it going again by a sharp pull.

If you’re thinking this sounds somewhat hazardous, you’re not alone.

Scanlon was at work Saturday morning and the machine clogged, the reel went on turning and broke the wire about ten inches from the die. Scanlon reached over as usual, caught hold of the wire and gave it a smart pull. Suddenly there was an explosion in the metal receptacle. The whole machine was enveloped in steam, and Scanlon was knocked senseless. When he regained consciousness he was in an ambulance on his way to Bellevue.

The doctors who examined him concluded that his elbow had been dislocated by the explosion. Apart from a trivial-looking cut on the forearm he appeared otherwise uninjured.

The usual practice for putting the elbow bones back into place was resorted to, but the pain in the arm did not cease. Sunday morning a more thorough examination was made and what was thought to be bits of broken bone could be felt about the joints.

The doctors decided that Scanlon had a compound fracture requiring surgical repair, and the following Monday morning they operated, after giving ether to put him to sleep.

Dr. Rathbone, assisted by the house staff, started the operation. The knife with which the surgeon commenced to cut away the flesh that covered the bones had hardly penetrated the skin when it struck against a foreign body that the surgeon’s delicate touch detected to be metal. Upon further cutting eleven feet, or more exactly, 134 inches of lead wire was brought out. The wire was coiled and tangled together and broken into many pieces. Part of it was lodged between the two bones of the forearm, but the most was embedded in the big muscle there, and in small bits about the elbow joint. Scanlon’s arm was evidently bent when the accident occurred, and the elbow joint stopped the wire, which had shot out of the machine under the force of the explosion and penetrated the arm where the little cut was found going on by its own momentum.

It must have been propelled with astonishing force to coil eleven feet (almost 3.5 metres) of wire inside his arm.

Scanlon was much relieved by the removal of the wire, and is now getting along well at the hospital. The muscle of the forearm was considerably cut up by the wire, but will heal quickly and the arm will be as good as ever.

Impressive.

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