Thinking of the state of medicine 100 years ago can bring on a shudder and a silent offering of thanks that we were born now and not then. But hold off on the gratitude: some of the grossest and most upsetting treatments are back.
Maggots eat flesh. Human flesh. If you wind up in the hospital with the wrong kind of injury or disorder, you might find them eating your flesh. How is that for a picture: looking down at, say, your thigh and seeing a bunch of translucent larvae eating you? Gross.
Andrew Sullivan, who calls them “Eaters of the Dead,” explains why doctors use them: to clean wounds and prevent infection. They eat the dead flesh from a wound and may secrete a substance that suppresses the immune system so that it doesn’t attack them, while it also prevents infection or swelling.
Using leeches means having “blood-sucking parasite[s] burrowing into [your] skin.” The big black worms may slime around your body: they can fall off and reattach themselves to you somewhere else. Or, once they are full to bursting with your blood, they will just fall off and get lost in your sheets. Welcome, bedmate.
So why put yourself through this? Leeches can be your best bet to help “reattach severed fingers [and] to treat potentially fatal circulation disorders.”
The reattachment thing works like this: say you cut off part of your finger. I know, we’re going from gross to grosser, but bear with me. When the doctor reattaches it, she can sew the arteries together because they are relatively large, but she can’t connect the veins because they are too small. (High school biology flashback: arteries are the ones that pump blood from the heart through the body, and veins take blood back to the heart.) If you have working arteries and no working veins, you have a finger that is full of blood with nowhere to go.
Leeches are more than happy to help with that. Pop one onto your fingertip and it will just hoover up that extra blood, bringing down the swelling and helping your newly reattached finger and its little veins heal.
Now what would medical worms be without secretions? Leeches’ prevent coagulation so you don’t get blood clots, and act as an anesthetic too. Plus they don’t take out too much blood, just a nice, steady, modest flow. Like any good parasite, if you help the leech, the leech will help you.
Sufferers of hemochromatosis, or iron overload, may also be candidates for the leech treatment. They essentially have too much blood. So think back on all the kooky things doctors used to do and take a guess how they treat people with too much blood. Yep, bloodletting. At least they don’t use it for every ailment anymore.
Studies indicate that leeches may also help sufferers of osteoarthritis of the knee or thumb. Those little suckers are really worming their way back into the medicine chest.
Lobotomies do not have a good reputation, and with good reason. They were often performed by forcing an icepick through the patient’s eye socket and into the brain, then indiscriminately twirling it around to destroy brain tissue. One doctor performed the operation assembly-line style, lobotomizing up to 25 people in a day. The surgery left many patients virtual zombies, including John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, who was lobotomized when she was 23. It was sometimes performed against the patient’s will and without good reason.
Indiscriminate ice pick lobotomies are not back, thank goodness. Doctors today perform a descendant of the lobotomy called a lobectomy, which can help some epilepsy sufferers.
Lobectomy can refer to a number of different surgeries. The most common operation for epilepsy patients is a temporal lobectomy, which “is the removal of a portion of the temporal lobe of the brain.”
Drastic? No doubt. That is why it is only performed on patients at high risk for permanent brain damage or death from otherwise uncontrollable major epileptic seizures. Apparently it works: 85% of patients who undergo the operation “enjoy a great improvement in seizure control.”
I haven’t found any reports of lobectomies making people vegetables for the rest of their lives, but that doesn’t mean everyone emerges unscathed. Lobectomies “may leave patients with a slightly different personality, but they are able to return to normal life.”
The effects of thalidomide are notorious. Pregnant women took the drug in the 1950s and ’60s to treat morning sickness, unaware that it drastically altered the development of their fetuses. Their children were born with missing or deformed limbs or ears, or with malformed internal organs. Many of them died.
When thalidomide was pulled from the market, its name was dirt. No one expected to see it ever again, but it’s back.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved thalidomide (now going by the name Thalomid) for two purposes: to treat blood and bone marrow cancer, and to treat skin lesions caused by leprosy. Research into other uses is ongoing. To get your hands on it you have to go through a process called S.T.E.P.S. to prevent thalidomide pregnancies.
Even though it is an old drug, taking thalidomide will cost you — $4,000 per month, according to one report from Canada, but since then Thalomid’s manufacturer agreed to lower the price in Canada. (That change came after a long tussle with the government.) In 2005, The New York Times put the cost of one year of Thalomid treatment in the U.S. at $25,000. According to a biotechnology analyst, drug makers in cases like Thalomid charge what the market will bear, regardless of what it cost them to manufacture the drug.
Who would have thought 50 years ago that rather than avoiding thalidomide like the plague, people would be forking over their life’s savings to get it? How the times do change.
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