5 Insane Doctors From History Who Put House to Shame
When you go to the doctor, you usually just assume the person probing your colon or manhandling your boobs is a perfectly sane, highly educated individual. Otherwise you wouldn't let him get so intimate with your inside parts.
But throughout history, there have been risk-taking, don't-give-a-shit doctors who were part Rambo, part MacGyver and part House (specifically, the crazy part of House).
Robert Liston: Speed Surgeon
In the world prior to the 20th century, every wound was a potential case of gangrene. The only cure was to amputate the gangrenous limb, which sucked even more than you'd think, as this was also a world without anesthesia. Pain management was nothing more than a swig of whiskey and a knock on the head with a hammer, Tweety Bird style.
While the patient was just told to quit whining by the now inebriated doctor.
So in those days, a merciful surgery was a fast surgery. When the gangrene fairy hit your house and the leg had to come off, the best you could hope for was a surgeon with sharp instruments, a lightning-quick hand and careful precision.
Robert Liston had the first two.
Liston could amputate your whole leg in less than three minutes -- skin, bone, muscle, tendon, right through. When every second is filled with excruciating pain and blood loss, that speed had to have made Liston seem like an angel of mercy. Though speed comes at a price.
"I came here to perform surgery and I don't much care upon who."
Let's imagine it's 1820 and your leg has turned so green people think you're a quarter Hulk. You've taken your whiskey and hear your doctor walk in the door. Then you hear your audience walk in the room, followed by the booming, confident voice of the doctor demanding, "Gentlemen -- time me!" Suddenly, your lifesaving procedure is now performance art for Robert "The Flash" Liston. Which was probably pretty nerve wracking for everyone involved, considering he was known to swing his scalpel a bit this way and that in the heat of the moment. Sure, he was able to amputate a leg in 150 seconds, but he occasionally took the patient's testicles as well. Just cut them right off.
"You wouldn't have boned anyone anyway, Captain Lean-to."
And it wasn't just the patients who sometimes got accidental pro bono operations. While extremely skilled, Liston's knife hand was kind of like a giant twister made of hacksaws. So even standing too close while he operated could be a literally life-threatening endeavor.
Liston's most famous case perfectly demonstrated both his amazing surgical speed and his total disregard of what was going around him: an operation in which he actually managed an impossible 300% mortality rate. In a frantic two and a half minutes, he amputated the patient's leg and the fingers of his assistant, and he slashed the coattails of a bystander. The patient and the assistant died of gangrene in the hospital later, and the bystander died of fright, because apparently people had the constitutions of fainting goats back then.
But that's OK, because Liston also created this handy Silent Hill-style restraint.
Liston's reign as surgeon supreme was finally ended by the arrival of working anesthetics, which rendered his lightning surgery unnecessary. So he gave up the slasher film method of operation and pioneered the use of anesthetics instead.
Begrudgingly, we assume.
This is him just straight up murdering the inventor.
Dominique Jean Larrey Was a One-Man Medical A-Team
So let's say you're not only a surgeon, but also a surgeon in Napoleon's army. No anesthesia, no warm bed to go home to at night -- you're pretty much left on the battlefield alone with nothing but a scalpel and a cravat. If you're Dominique Jean Larrey, it doesn't matter that it's the 1800s and that none of the tools you really need have been invented yet. You'll invent them.
"Nice MRI. I made mine out of a light bulb and some string."
With the exception of Playboy magazine and the helicopter, Larrey single-handedly created everything a wartime medic could need. Roughly one hundred percent of basic equipment and procedures of modern military medicine trace back to shit that was MacGyvered together by Larrey. When he thought they'd need a more efficient way for transporting the medics and the wounded, he commandeered a bunch of French artillery carriages and converted them, thus inventing the ambulance. When he decided he'd like some organization around him, he commandeered a bunch of men and invented medical troops. First efficient battlefield amputation and open-wound surgery techniques? Larrey. Equal treatment of all wounded soldiers? Larrey. Field hospitals? Oh yes, Larrey.
You can remove someone's limbs and go on a jolly little holiday in one vehicle.
He wasn't just some surgeon general shouting orders from the outskirts of the battlefield. Although he ranked fairly high in the chain of command, he was right there in the fray whenever he could be, personally performing emergency operations as cannons exploded around him.
He was no slouch, either: his personal best was an unimaginable 200 amputations in 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, soldiers loved the shit out of Larrey. He was treated as a hero wherever he went, to the point where weary and defeated French troops actually lifted him above their heads and crowd-surfed him during Napoleon's retreat from Russia -- just so that he'd be the first one to safety.
"If you'd stop posing for one moment, I may be able to save your goddamned life."
The notoriously self-obsessed Napoleon did not mind Larrey's vast popularity one bit -- in fact, he was the president of the Larrey Fan Club, with several remarks that the doctor was pretty much the worthiest guy he'd ever met. Larrey was, in fact, so revered that the Duke of Wellington -- one of Napoleon's bitterest enemies and a commander in the battle of Waterloo -- gave specific orders to his men not to fire at that one French guy and his troops, because DAMN.
As a final Hollywood plot twist, someone disobeyed the order and Larrey sustained a gunshot wound. Ironically, he was left wounded on the battlefield until the opposing Prussians found and captured him. Bearing an enemy officer's uniform, he was promptly sentenced to death -- until the Prussian commander happened to pass by and immediately released him ... because one of the enemy soldiers Larrey had treated just happened to be the commander's son.
"I appreciate the effort, guys, but I think a bonnet's more of a lady thing."
Lidia Soto Performs a Live Grenade Removal
Imagine you're a street vendor, minding your business, selling your friendship bracelets or funnel cakes or whatever, when out of nowhere a huge rock hits you in the head, lodging itself in your face. That would be awful, right? OK, now imagine that it wasn't a rock, but a grenade. A live one. A LIVE GRENADE IS STUCK IN YOUR FACE AS YOU TRY TO SELL YOUR FISH TACOS ON THE STREETS OF MEXICO.
That's what happened to Karla Flores. Somebody had to get the grenade out, or the poor woman wasn't going to have any other options but to go to an open field and wait until she had a giggle fit or sneezed.
"Oh God oh God. I'm allergic to grenades."
Somehow, she ended up at the Mexican Culiacan General Hospital, presumably through the Angel Ambulance network, which is run by actual angels with no fear of death.
Once there, volunteers were called upon to help the poor woman with a bomb stuck in her grill. What was expected was the shuffling of feet and sudden interest in the patterns on the ceiling -- after all, if it detonated, the grenade could take out anyone in a 32-foot radius. What was not expected was the hand that shot up from the gaggle of hesitant doctors. Lidia Soto was in the house, and she would take on that damn grenade.
"I'm sick of having to change my socks every time someone wets themselves over a tiny little explosive."
Along with two anesthesiologists and a nurse, Soto performed the excruciating operation in a field, where what was possibly the world's first surgical detonation area was jointly set up by the hospital and the Mexican army (which also provided the explosives experts). And remember, the doctor and nurse had to take orders from the experts -- how else were they supposed to know what was bomb and what was not-bomb? It was like one of those intense Speed red wire or blue wire moments -- but on someone's face.
It took hours of steady hands and calm nerves, all the time in full knowledge that the slightest mistake would detonate the grenade and turn the whole field into one big Jackson Pollock painting. But Soto succeeded, and Karla Flores escaped certain death with just some scarring and some lost teeth.
"You'd be surprised at what seems fair when the alternative is exploding."
Evan O'Neill Kane Performed Surgery on Himself
For those of you who squeal at the sign of an errant hangnail that needs removal, or even wince at the thought of someone waxing their eyebrows, you might want to skip this entry about Evan O'Neill Kane.
Dr. Kane was no stranger to operating on himself. And if there's anything people should be a stranger to, it's that. And we're not talking about some 127 Hours situations where a guy is saving his own life through desperate, horrific measures. Dr. Feelgood planned out his own surgeries, and executed them. On purpose.
What's really impressive is the fact he did it under general anesthetic.
It started in 1919 when Kane self-amputated one of his own fingers that had become infected. OK, that's pretty weird, but, you know, maybe there was no one else around to perform the operation ... at his hospital that was named after his father.
One little digit amputation is one thing, a self-appendectomy is another thing altogether.
Using only local anesthesia, Kane opened his own damn gut up and successfully removed his own damn appendix. Why didn't he ask one of his colleagues to perform the operation instead? Because he wanted to prove appendectomies only need local numbing. It was also about this time that he began tattooing the initial "K'' on his patients. In Morse code. Because how else would his patients remember that they now belonged to Dr. Frankenkane?
"On that note, I'll need you to come to the Chinese take away tonight so I don't forget my order."
The crazy part -- or, the craziest part -- is that the appendectomy wasn't even his most dangerous self-surgery. Ten years later he was right back on the self-operating table fixing his horseback-riding-induced hernia. The now 70-year-old surgeon performed the whole risky 1 hour, 45 minute operation save the final two or three stitches, chatting and laughing with the nurses the whole time like it wasn't no thing (which to him it obviously wasn't). This time, however, he did give a slight nod to his advanced age by allowing another doctor to participate in the operation.
As the tattooist.
"Wow, that snake you're drawing is starting to look a lot like a ... oh, very funny."
Dr. David Nott Is an Action Hero
It's one thing to be a brilliant doctor. It's another to be a globe-trotting adventurer, constantly in the throes of some Indiana Jones-worthy escapades. And then it's still another to be some unholy combination of the two. Meet Dr. Knight in Shining Armor, David Nott.
The nerd you gave noogies to in high school is now featured in a Cracked article.
To begin with, Nott is a vascular surgeon, a Doctors Without Borders volunteer, so right away you know this is not someone you want to go against in the "Most Accomplished" category at the high school reunion. After all, anyone who specializes in performing surgeries in war zones is going to have some stories to tell. It's not until you hear the stories, one after the other, that you appreciate what the guy is doing for a living.
He has an uncanny ability to stumble upon one medical Die Hard after another, constantly ending up in situations where he always seems to be going against the grain and fighting a hopeless, one-man battle to save the day ... and you can bet your ass the clock's ticking.
Any place with that kind of nonchalant gun-holding is a bad place.
Nott has found himself in the middle of Congo jungle, performing a life-saving emergency amputation on a boy who had been either bitten by a hippopotamus or caught in some rebel crossfire. No one was really sure which. Whatever the case, it wasn't just a simple amputation. Part of the boy's collarbone and shoulder blade needed to be removed, and he was going to lose a shit ton of blood during the procedure. This was an operation so rare and complex that only about 10 people a year have it in England. And Nott had never performed one.
He winged it, receiving hurried instructions from a colleague via text messages. And succeeded.
"Sever the pony artery? Jesus, Steve, I told you to get a Blackberry."
But to really appreciate Dr. David Nott, you have to hear the story of Landina Seignon, Haiti's "Miracle Baby." And if you're in for the long haul, you probably ought to grab some tissues.
About two weeks before the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a Haitian mother of four left her kids alone while she went out to buy some candles. They lived in one of the worst slums in Port-au-Prince, and the family didn't have electricity, so it wasn't like she was just trying to buy some scented ambiance for the home. Sadly, the house caught on fire and the three older children fled, leaving 6-week-old Landina alone in the burning home. She didn't die, but she didn't come out of the fire in good shape, either. So before the earthquake hit, Baby Landina was getting treatment for her severe burns at La Trinite Hospital in Port-au-Prince. After the earthquake hit, she sat in the rubble, burns and all, unnoticed for two days.
But sure, bitch about taking out the garbage.
And here's where the miracle comes in. Dr. Nott was on the ground in Haiti, helping with disaster relief, performing something like 12 operations a day, when Landina's case was brought to his attention. No one knew who her family was, or if they were even alive. But Nott knew that she had a very specific skull injury that was going to require years of intensive care, with equipment and professionals that weren't going to be found in Haiti.
But it turns out that taking a severely injured, unclaimed child out of a disaster-stricken country is harder than you'd think:
"The official asked for Landina's birth certificate, which of course I didn't have. Nor could I say who her parents were or even whether they were alive. He told me to get out. I refused. I showed him a picture of Landina on my camera and said that her flight was leaving in a couple of hours and that she would die if she wasn't on it. A policeman was summoned but I clung to the arms of my chair."
"You want me to leave her here? You can respectfully piss off, sir."
Eventually, he not only got Landina to London, but he also founded a charity that would provide for her medical expenses, as well as a caregiver that would tend to her very, very sensitive wounds on her skull.
Ok, so Dr. Nott saves Landina's life and finds her a potential new family. Here's where things got tricky. A journalist who had been working alongside Nott all along did some investigative work to find Landina's family ... and voila. There they were. Marie Miracle and her children were still living in the slum, completely unaware that Landina was alive and getting treatment in London. Eventually the mother, the baby and the doctor are brought together ...
And a very specific charity is created that will provide Landina's whole family with a clean apartment and private schooling, and a Haitian doctor will donate his time and resources to helping Landina heal.
We told you to get the tissues out.
Pauli Poisuo is not a doctor, but you can still visit him at the Unpronounceable or read more of his stuff here.
For more unexpected badassery, check out The 5 Biggest Badass Popes and 6 Organizations You Didn't Know Were Secretly Badass.