5 Medical Procedures Worthy of Frankenstein
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was originally published back in 1818, so everyone's had ample time to get up to speed on the basics: A scientist named Victor Frankenstein fills a shopping cart with corpse parts and, after a little stitching and genetic tinkering, harnesses a lightning strike. Then, ushered by his creator's pride that curdles to mortal terror, a monster lumbers into the world. It's a story not entirely dissimilar to the origin of hot dogs.
But as humanity has worn its collective butt prints into settees and davenports, then La-Z-Boys and raggedy futons, the horrific science fiction of Frankenstein has become the life-giving science fact of today's modern medicine. Here are five ways real Franken-science rearranges, reanimates, and restores.
The University of North Carolina estimates that 41 to 71 percent of the population (plus Keith Richards) will need a blood transfusion at some point in their lives. So unless you're some freak who's immune to disease and injury or never needs surgery, get ready for a couple pints.
The practice of transfusion predates Frankenstein by 150 years. Attempted in France using sheep's blood, initial efforts were actually successful, likely owing to the small amount of blood used. But eventually a guy died. That's what happens when you try to transfuse too much sheep blood.
Unfortunately, a big stink over one dead guy in France = no more transfusions for a century and a half.
Things improved with the identification of distinct human blood types, and by 1840 the first full transfusion was performed. Around 1910, anticoagulants were added to blood, and we figured out that popping it into the fridge was a good idea. That set the stage for blood banks and donations, which have been giving some people a cookie and a pat on the back -- and others the opportunity to make some cash to pay the cable bill -- ever since.
"Hey, is there a way to speed this up? I need to get HBO back on before Game of Thrones starts."
The blood for today's transfusions is rigorously tested for infection and diseases like HIV and syphilis, but that doesn't mean the procedure is without peril. The process of transfusing blood adds up to $17 billion annually in additional medical costs due to complications. Getting new life juice can still be plenty tricky.
When a human heart stops, that ticker's owner is going to either wake up in a hospital with a doctor stroking his chin at the foot of the bed or be dead. So hopefully someone at the church basement potluck supper knows CPR, or better yet, the parish sprung for a defibrillator.
"Uh, 'For God so lov-'"
"No, the voltage, you idiot!"
Demonstrated first on dogs in 1899 by two Swiss scientists, the application of electric current (now conveniently available from the wall, not just via lightning bolts a la Dr. Frankenstein) to an arresting heart muscle followed earlier cardiac revival practices such as blowing smoke up a patient's ass, sucking down flower and leaf tea, and bloodletting (actually effective, according to Oprah).
Incredibly, for many years cardiac resuscitation had been the exclusive domain of the fire department. If a patient's heart stopped during a surgical procedure, the doctor calmly removed his plastic gloves, went over to the wall, and dialed up the red engines. That was until Claude Beck, a resident at Johns Hopkins, realized that waiting for the fire department while a patient flopped around on the operating table surrounded by medical professionals was really stupid. He constructed the first AC internal defibrillator, to be used on the heart muscle when the chest cavity was open.
"I tried a different cavity first ... that didn't turn out so great."
The closed-chest paddle method was not pioneered until the mid-1950s. Today, the automated external defibrillator's sensors and processors will calculate whether a shock is necessary, and if so, dispense the correct amount of current to bring a man back from the dead so that he can go lumbering back to the buffet line for another helping of chicken and cream cheese church casserole.
Man has known there was something to this whole organ transplant business going pretty far back. Second century B.C. Chinese doctor Bian Que was said to have swapped hearts between two men so as to equalize their dispositions. While that's some Han Dynasty B.S. right there, Bian Que certainly had something of the right idea: Receiving a new organ can alleviate problems your current one isn't taking care of.
"Thanks for your years of hard work, but we've decided to go in a new non-dying direction."
In 1883, Swiss surgeon Theodor Kocher discovered that implanting thyroid tissue could eliminate thyroid deficiency symptoms in a patient. That might seem like a no-duh head slapper now, but this was also the year the first rodeo took place. So, you know, people were just starting to figure things out then.
Kocher's work is largely considered the first modern organ transplant. Once doctors had that under their belts, they were off to the transplanting races -- at least with belief and enthusiasm.
By the turn of the century, it was accepted that internal transplants could cure a raft of diseases, but men of science would be damned if they could figure out why bodies kept turning on and rejecting their new organ pals.
"What if we tried shee-"
Thankfully, an early anti-rejection experiment involving animals wasn't the solution. That involved feeding meat of the organ donor to the organ recipient so as to get the two systems acquainted. Guys, guys, c'mon -- cannibalism is always a last resort.
Stymied by the organ rejection problem, science eventually threw its collective hands up in the air for the next few decades and let everyone kill each other in a couple world wars. Finally, in 1951, a researcher cracked the elusive nut of how to counter tissue rejection -- with beautiful, beautiful drugs. Immunosuppressive drugs, to be exact. Soon we were on our way to making this life-saving procedure viable, readily available, and open for long-ass waiting lists.
And now, roughly 3,500 heart transplants alone are performed annually. Hearts that would have otherwise gone to rot in a grave continue pulsing blood through the veins of regular folks and monsters such as Dick Cheney.
If you think about it, it's a marvel that we live in a time of such medical advancement that waking up in a New Delhi motel room with the dawning horror that your kidney was sliced out for the benefit of some rich bastard is even a possibility!
A simple yet ill-advised Google image search will confirm that some sort of face-eliminating horror show scenario involving nature, machine, or beast must have occurred if someone is being considered for a face transplant. First, forget the Face/Off-style swapping of one ruggedly handsome, slightly aging mug for another. There's no Travolta upgrade available. What that person will get -- if he or she is lucky -- is the face of a corpse with an intact and compatible visage that can hopefully be slapped on without the onset of horrible, horrible infection.
The first successful partial transplant was conducted as recently as 2005 on a French woman who had her nose, chin, and lips eaten off by her dog (see "face-eliminating horror show," above). Following the surgery, she was said to have a "hybrid" face with similarities both to her own and to her donor's. In 2010, Spanish doctors performed the world's first total face transplant on a gunshot accident victim. That procedure included not only the skin of the face, nose, and lips, but also the donor's cheekbones and teeth. Essentially, the entire face of a dead man.
They call it Rourking in the medical biz.
The prevailing medical opinion is that face transplants are seldom a "necessity." Most people are expected to "live" without them -- just not eat or breathe on their own or go out in public without hearing the horrified screams of their torch-wielding neighbors. It's predominantly elective surgery involving a brutal, lifelong drug regimen alongside the constant fear that your body will reject the transplant. However, we're fairly certain the people who didn't have faces but then got faces weren't consulted when determining this definition of "necessity."
Not only are the medical risks higher, but finding a face donor match is much more difficult than other transplants. The blood type needs to be identical, and the basic skin tone, face shape, and age must be similar. Plus, there's the difference between approaching a grieving family about harvesting their loved one's kidneys and asking them if you can repurpose something as individual and identifying as their dead son or husband's face, like you're reupholstering some really cool chair you found at the thrift store.
Some people aren't keen to be buried or burned up in death and instead spend an obscene amount of money on a preservation procedure called cryonics (which has a famous poster boy/cautionary tale named Ted Williams -- more on him in a bit).
First proposed in 1962, cryonics is the process where extremely low temperatures are used to preserve a human body that is considered dead by contemporary standards. It's expensive, but the hope is that future technology will be able to heal or resuscitate you someday (a key word in cryonics). You're betting that your memories and personality are stored in brain cells that aren't dead just because current science says they are.
Keep in mind that this is the same current science you're counting on to freeze you in the first place.
So now it's decision time, people. Opt for full-body freezing or just go with the head, which is termed neuropreservation? In the future, they'll plop your melon on a new body of some random future person's choosing and start you up, Frankenstein-style. If things go as planned.
Before making that call, gather 'round for Ted Williams Story Time. Williams, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, specified in his will that he be cremated and his ashes be spread in the Florida Keys.
That's not what happened.
Although being a career Red Sox should have really prepped Ted for things not ending the way he'd like.
Upon his death, Williams' son and daughter produced an ink-stained napkin signed by their father that stated he wanted them all to be cryonically preserved upon death so they could be reunited sometime in the future. The napkin survived a legal challenge, and somebody decided on a new cryonic option for Ted.
His head was frozen separately from his body.
According to Sports Illustrated, after Williams was decapitated, his head was placed into a steel can and his body stored in a 9-foot-tall cylinder filled with liquid nitrogen.
Approaching 200 years post-Frankenstein, the mad scientists of today now reside at the Alcor cryonics facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, allegedly using Ted's head can for batting practice and championing their unproven but fictional-for-how-long cryogenic procedures.