Trees do not grow in humans

In June 1879 the Chicago Telegraph made quite a splash with a story published under this headline:Extraordinary case

Probably the most wonderful phenomenon that has ever come under the observation of the medical fraternity of this city developed itself at the Montcalm House, on Erie street, in the person of a boy named Herbert G. Schwartz.  Schwartz senior is a farmer, and well-to-do, owning a fine prairie farm of 160 acres in Tama county. Herbert has for a number of years assisted at the farm work, and was, until recently, a stout, healthy and intelligent boy. Last April Herbert and his brother Fritz were playing together in the farm’s barn, having turned the horses in after a day’s plowing. At supper that evening young Schwartz complained of a queer feeling in his chest, and coughed considerably. Thinking that the boy had caught cold, but little attention was paid to the matter, and for the two or three succeeding days, though the cough continued and he complained of an oppressive feeling in the left chest, his father used the simple country remedies for ordinary cold.

There’s no word about what these ‘simple country remedies’ were, but they seemed to do the trick – though Herbert still complained of a strange feeling in his chest.

In the latter part of April Herbert’s appetite deserted him, and he commenced to lose flesh to such an extent that from a stout, healthy farm lad he dwindled down to nothing more than a living skeleton. Various remedies were tried, and local medical advice taken. The physicians called were of the opinion that hasty consumption had set in, and but little hopes were offered of his recovery.

‘Hasty consumption’ being acute tuberculosis, which would remain incurable for another seventy years.

In the latter part of last month another singular feature added itself to the afflicted youth’s distress. The pain in his chest became more intense, and added to it there was now an irritating, tickling sensation in the throat, as though some foreign matter had lodged there that demanded a removal. This induced a continuous cough, until, at last, the sufferer had hardly a moment’s release from the attack. Every one connected with the boy gave him up, and his family already felt that the doom of a speedy demise was inevitable.

In desperation the boy’s father took him to Chicago to consult better – or at least, more expensive – doctors than could be found in Tama County, Iowa. This is a journey of some 300 miles: no small undertaking. There Scharwtz junior came under the care of Drs Charles A. Andrews and Ernest Solomon.

At first both Dr. Andrews and Dr. Solomon agreed that it was a case of hasty consumption, and extended no hopes to the districted parent. But Friday morning, while Herbert was undergoing one of his worst paroxysms of coughing, a light, or an intuition suddenly forced itself upon Dr. Solomon. Requesting the boy’s father to assist him, he suspended the patient by the heels near a window, with a strong light thrown down his throat.

These days it is possible to look down a patient’s throat without recourse to such drastic measures. Bronchoscopy has – by and large – made suspending patients upside-down by the ankles unnecessary.

Without whispering his suspicions or intentions the doctor, with the aid of instruments, made an examination of the throat, so far as the eye could penetrate: and his investigation was rewarded by a wonderful discovery. A foreign body was discovered partially implanted in the mucous membrane of the windpipe. Having firmly seized upon it with his instrument, despite the struggles of the patient, Dr. Solomon drew forth a germinated kernel of wheat, with a growing stalk seven and one-quarter inches long!

Just picture the size of this object for a second. From the description that follows it sounds as if the radicle (the seed-root) had embedded itself pretty deeply in the trachea, bronchus or even lung – not nice.

The stock was of a brownish-red color, while the tendrils of the germinated kernel were massed in clotted blood. A violent hemorrhage ensued, that required much trouble to check, but young Schwartz, though very weak, is now much better, and bids fair to rapidly recover. The only explanation of this most singular incident is that Herbert swallowed a grain of wheat while playing in the barn with his brother, and that the kernel, instead of taking the natural channel, reached his left lung and there remained and sprouted. It is certainly one of the most extraordinary cases on record. Dr Solomon has preserved the wheat in a vial, where hundreds of the curious viewed it in his office.

Part of me thinks that life in 1870s Chicago must have been pretty boring, if a wheat kernel in a glass vial was a major tourist attraction.

Though undoubtedly extraordinary, this is not a unique case.  In recent years doctors claim to have treated one patient who was found to have a pea shoot growing in his lungs, and another harbouring a two-inch fir tree.  That said, two distinguished respiratory specialists from the Cleveland Clinic wrote a letter to the journal Chest to express considerable scepticism: ‘We would like to bring to the attention of readers that trees do not grow in humans.’

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