Strictly From Hunger (Sep, 1951)

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Strictly From Hunger

Bolts and bed springs may not be on your menu but some people swallow them and manage to stay alive.

By West F. Peterson

“DOC, I’ve got an awful stomach-ache.” a steelworker of Gary, Ind., complained recently to his physician. “It’s been bothering me ever since I was in jail on a trumped-up assault and battery charge. What do you think is wrong with me?”

“Hmmm,” said the medico, “might be appendicitis.” He prodded the patient’s abdomen, asked a series of questions and decided his snap diagnosis was correct.

But in the hospital the next morning, the doctor had barely started to operate when his scalpel clinked against some metallic objects lodged inside the husky laborer. Hastily he sewed up the incision and ordered the patient’s removal to the X-ray room.

The X-ray showed the steelworker to be literally full of junk. Believe it or not, his stomach contained the following articles: five small bed springs, six razor blades, three needles, three safety pins, eight straight pins, two fragments of spoons, one torn-up aspirin box, ten small bits of steel, a salt shaker and the crushed glass from two light bulbs.

It turned out that the patient, despondent at being arrested, had swallowed all these objects in his jail cell in an attempt at suicide. He got the razor blades and some of the other objects down his throat by coating them with caramel. He’d refused to tell the physician of his unusual diet for fear he would be considered peculiar.

The doctor prescribed cathartics and bulk foods and let nature take its course. Miraculously none of the articles set up an infection or became stuck in the intestines and a few days later the steelworker walked out of the hospital none the worse for his experience.

People can swallow the darnedest things and still live. Ostriches, for instance, can eat most anything. Goats reputedly love to devour tin cans. But a review of hospital records indicates that humans have it all over their furred and feathered friends in the matter of gastronomical oddities.

There’s no age limit, either. In Chicago, specialists using a bronchoscope, removed a thumbtack from the interior of a baby only 24 hours old. On the West Coast, a similar operation retrieved a set of dentures from the gizzard of a gaffer who was 95.

But, accidentally or by design, members of the younger set are the ones who most frequently gulp their way into trouble.

Boys like nine-year-old Edward Travis, for instance. One day in 1946, accompanied by his worried mother, he walked into a Peekskill, N. Y., hospital and announced he had just swallowed 18 glass marbles as a result of a dare by a playmate. X-rays showed he was telling the truth. Deciding against an operation, the doctors prescribed a cathartic diet. One by one, little Ed got rid of the marbles, which he took home with him as souvenirs.

“But I’ll never do anything like that again,” the boy promised. “I don’t like castor oil!”

In Knoxville, Tenn., doctors X-rayed the throat of Phyllis Dean, four years old, and spotted a nickel she had swallowed. When they operated they pulled out 15 cents. Sober-sided medicos also attest to the queer thing that happened to young Larry Lingle in Harrisburg, Pa. He swallowed a nickel—and coughed up a penny!

In New Britain, Conn., ten-year-old Richard Ostertag was hurrying to a store on an errand for his mother, clutching a half-dollar. He felt his pants starting to slip so he put the four bits in his mouth and grabbed at his waistband. He tripped and fell—and the coin went down his throat. In a hospital a series of X-ray pictures showed the progress of the half-dollar down the esophagus and into the stomach. Rough foods helped to force it the rest of the way through his system.

It seems incredible, but somehow a baby only 18 months old managed to swallow a mechanical pencil five inches in length at his home in Greensboro, S. C. Since the pencil lodged sideways and pierced the wall of the stomach, surgeons had to perform a delicate operation to extract it.

But in a large majority of cases, when an object is swallowed it is expelled naturally through the digestive tract. Yet there is always a danger that it may become lodged in such tricky passages as the esophagus or the intestines.

Much more perilous are those cases in which, instead of being swallowed, an object is sucked down the windpipe and into the bronchial tubes or the lungs. When this occurs, the foreign matter must be removed to prevent a fatal infection from setting in.

Today, fatalities from swallowing or inhaling foreign objects are extremely rare, thanks to a handful of new gadgets and to the training of surgeons skilled in their use.

The best known of these instruments is the bronchoscope, a metal tube some 15 to 20 inches in length and ranging in diameter from the size of a soda straw to that of a large pencil. There is a tiny electric light bulb at the end and the doctor peers through the tube periscope-fashion to inspect the patient’s innards. Delicate forceps, manipulated by a pistol grip, are introduced down the tube to grapple with the foreign objects.

The esophagoscope, a variation of the bronchoscope, does for the digestive tract what the latter does for the air passages:

Then there’s the laryngoscope, a shorter instrument, used in the larynx. Each of the ‘scopes comes in more than a dozen different types and sizes.

The medical magnet was perfected during World War II. This is a small cylinder which, though requiring no electricity for its operation, has a tremendous pick-up power. Sometimes it is used in conjunction with one of the ‘scopes, but more often it is attached to a fine rubber tube or a waxed string and given to the patient to swallow.

When the magnet comes in contact with an object like a bobby pin it takes hold and is withdrawn. It has been used to extract large nails and similar bits of hardware even after they have entered the intestines.

The modern specialists—bronchoscopists is the term generally used—also are equipped with a sort of mine detector, known as the Berman Locator, which tells them exactly where metallic objects have become lodged.

The most recent case of a human ostrich was reported in the British Medical Journal last March by Dr. J. O. McMullin of Gavan, Eire. Twice, the doc operated on a 24-year-old laborer to remove the following odds and ends from the man’s stomach and intestines:

One five-inch bicycle wrench
One tension spring, three inches long
One steel twist drill, three-and-one-half inches long
One five-inch bicycle wheel axle
One portion of a hacksaw blade.

When Dr. McMullin’s patient recovered, he was advised to change his job—go to work in a grocery store instead of a machine shop!

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