DIY Surgery

One of the most horrific accounts I’ve read – posted elsewhere – is that of Fanny Burney being operated on for breast cancer in the 18th century. Surgery at the time was generally fro two things – kidney stones – the pain of which has been compared with that of childbirth – and for life threatening cancer. The tv series John Adams featured a similar operation on his daughter. But there are a few instances when people have been forced to operate on themselves – famously in the film 127 Hours when rock climber Aron Ralston got his arm stuck under a boulder. He probably survived only because he received medical help soon after.

Amputating a limb involves breaking the bone – it may already be shattered when it was trapped, cutting through the soft tissue – tendons and ligaments can be very tough. Loss of blood is also a big danger, so a tourniquet needs to be applied.

Adam Taylor in the i paper talks of the understandable rarity of abdominal self surgery due to it being more complicated, and more damage can be done. He cites a man

who tried to remove the nerve supply to his adrenal glands to suppress unwanted aggression and sexual impulses.

This is an odd one. The adrenals sit on top of our kidneys, on the back of our abdominal cavity, so an incredibly difficult place for a person to access on themselves. And close to the spine, so a high risk of serious nerve damage. Taylor continues:

The most remarkable example of abdominal self-surgery was the case of a 40-year old Mexican woman who, in 2004 performed a Caesarian on herself using a kitchen knife. She applied her knowledge of slaughtering animals to guide the knife through her abdominal wall and into her uterus. Her anaesthesia was three shots of “hard liquor”.Mother and child survived, but after a long and complicated post-operative issues.

The main risks are damaging vital organs, severing blood vessels and infection. But it’s worth considering that patients in the past fced these dangers even when going under the knife of experts.

The notable 19th century surgeon Robert Liston, who could amputate a leg in less than 3 minutes, is the only surgeon to have achieved a 300% mortality rare as a result of an operation, when a patient, his assistant (who lost a finger while holding the patient down) and an observer died – the first two from infection of their wounds, and the observer from fright, believing he had been cut when rally it was only his coat that had been knifed. Perhaps you would rather carry out surgery on yourself than be subjected to his skills.

It is also worth considering that many people lived in pain – laudanum was virtually the only source of relief, so pain thresholds were higher than for us who have access to anything from aspirin and paracetamol up to heavy duty i-v painkilling, so they probably could bear pain better than we do. Alcohol is not, except in the sense of emotions, a form of pain relief. That needs to be countered by the exhaustion such constant pain causes.

DO NOT TRY ANY OF THIS AT HOME. Surgeons train for about 10 years to get it right.

5 thoughts on “DIY Surgery

  1. I too was appalled by the Burney account – written, as far as I can gather, to exorcise the PTSD which resulted from the experience. You certainly wouldn’t have undergone surgery for anything less than a life-threatening condition, would you, or else for something as excruciating as the stone (Pepys luckily doesn’t describe his operation, though I notice he always remembered it and marked the anniversary).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks . No idea why she wrote it. Perhaps to warn what to expect for any other sufferers. As for Pepys, kidney stone pain is said to be on a par with childbirth so worth the risk. Cd be fatal too if urethral obstructed causing renal failure.


      • The web thinks this was written to a sister to forestall worry about any rumours the sister might hear, though as reassurance the account is a bit off target! Long ago I did read a lot of Burney for Eng Lit, and I seem to remember there was something about her husband telling her to write it all out because she wasn’t coping with the memory, but I don’t have that source so memory may not be reliable. And yes about the stone – descriptions sound hideous.


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