Why would we ever read a book called Why You Should Store Farts in a Jar & Other Oddball or Gross Maladies, Afflictions, Remedies, and Cures? It’s the same reason we watch Discovery channel’s Untold Stories of the ER. Bizarre medical anomalies and outrageous surgical procedures are more interesting than what we read about or see on run-of-the-mill hospital dramas. Why society once believed that dead mouse paste could cure toothaches or that crocodile dung could be used as contraceptive (Egypt) is simply more fascinating than the McDreamy story arc on Grey’s Anatomy. …Not even Sir Kenelm Digby’s “Powder of Sympathy” could have saved Dr. Derek Shepherd from those car crash wounds.
From leeching and bloodletting to tonics and curious cures, the history of medicine is filled with all sorts of non-scientific oddities. And while most peculiar medical treatments are nothing more than footnotes in the annals of health care, there are still unconventional surgeries being done today that are reminiscent of the Middle Ages. Doctors may no longer prescribe arsenic, maggot therapy, snake oil, or moldy bread, let alone a diet of cocaine or laudanum, but they support uterus transplants and “tooth in eye” surgeries. Here are 10 types of surgeries you won’t believe exist.
10. Throat Transplant
In 2011, hot shot Swedish surgeon Paolo Macchiarini of Karolinska University Hospital transplanted the first artificial trachea and bronchi using the patient’s own stem cells. At the time the operation was called a medical breakthrough; it opened the door to a brave new world of artificial structures. Since 2011, the surgery has been performed on seven other patients. Six of the eight patients are now dead, and the esteemed Swedish hospital is engulfed in a medical scandal. The head of the institute has resigned. And so has the secretary general of the Nobel Committee. Meanwhile, Macchiarini has been accused of research misconduct, and an article in Vanity Fair claimed the former surgeon falsified his resume.
Distraction osteogenisis, otherwise known as limb-lengthening surgery, was originally developed by Alessandro Codivilla to reconstruct skeletal deformities. The procedure was reserved for people with Dwarfism and children with one leg longer than the other. Today, limb-lengthening surgery is a radical cosmetic craze. The procedure is arduous, prolonged, and extremely painful. Only a few doctors perform the surgery in the U.S., and it can cost as much as $85,000, which is a high price to pay to add two or three inches to your height. And the pain, well… it’s medieval. How does it work? The patient’s shin bones are broken, telescopic rods are inserted, and the rods pull the bones apart roughly 1 millimeter a day.
8. Tongue Removal
Hemiglossectomy is the surgical removal of half the tongue. It’s used as a treatment for oral cancer and done under general anesthesia. The surgery, however, has a more sinister origin. In the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors used to the procedure to treat stuttering. J.F. Dieffenbach, a Prussian surgeon, developed the radical cure. The good surgeon believed that an incision through the root of the tongue stopped the spasm of the vocal cords. Sadly, the treatment didn’t work. Some patients bled to death, and others, now missing half their tongue, stuttered even worse than before the procedure. Electric shock and hypnosis have also been used to treat stuttering.
7. Sweat Stopping
Part medical, part cosmetic, and all Frankenstein, ETS surgery removes portions of the sympathetic nerve trunk in order to treat cases of excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis). However, EDS doesn’t just cure sweaty palms and prevent armpit rings on your favorite shirt; it’s also used as a cosmetic procedure to treat excessive blushing. Side effects include chronic muscular pain, numbness, Horner’s Syndrome, hyperthermia, and fatigue. The most severe consequence of ETS, however, is corposcindosis, or split-body syndrome. As one region of the nervous system is paralyzed and the other functional, the patient feels like he’s living in two separate bodies.
There’s nothing like boring a hole in someone’s head to improve their wellbeing. Cave paintings suggest that trepanning can be traced as far back as the Neolithic period and was used as a cure for migraines, seizures, and other mental disorders. The practice of drilling, or scraping, a hole in the human skull continued throughout the Middle Ages; if a person behaved abnormally, trepanning was a way to let evil spirits out of the body. Boring a hole in the skull for medical purposes may seem as murderous as leeching or mercury cures, but archeological evidence of the practice has turned up all over the world, from South America to Scandinavia. Rumor has it the trepanning is still used in some New Age circles.
5. Pregnant Pelvis Widening
The operating theater can be a barbaric place where draconian medical practices are metered out like medieval punishments. Symphysiotomy is a surgical procedure used to manually widen the pelvis of a pregnant woman. The operation unhinges the pelvis, and saws are often used to cut a pathway large enough for the child to pass. Ireland is the only country to use symphysiotomy instead of the traditional Caesarean section, and it was a widespread medical practice from the 1940s to the 1980s. The United Nations Human Rights Committee eventually found the procedure to be torturous, cruel, and degrading. But by then it was too late; an estimated 1,500 Irish women and girls had undergone the surgery, many of whom now complain of life-long disability and chronic pain.
4. Cutting Off Lower Body
Hemicorporectomy, or translumbar amputation, is a surgical operation that involves removing the entire body below the waist, including the legs, sexual organs, pelvic bone, and urinary system. According to Dr. Jeffrey Janis, associate professor of plastic surgery at UT Southwestern, “It is used as a last resort on patients with potentially fatal illnesses such as certain cancers or complications from ulcers in the pelvic region.” The surgery has also been used on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffered complicated injuries or bone infections. In 2009, a 25-year review of hemicorporectomy cases proved that the operation, combined with therapy, adds years and quality of life to survivors.
The cerebellum, which is the largest part of the brain, can be divided down the middle into two hemispheres. A hemispherectomy is the surgical process that removes one cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Pioneering neurosurgeon Walter Dandy originally developed the technique to treat brain tumors. In the 1960s and 70s, the operation was rare and fraught with complications –CSF leakage, deep and superficial infections –but the procedure has evolved and is commonly used today to treat extreme seizures brought on by epilepsy. The operation is done mostly on children because they display more neuroplasticity, which that allows the neurons in the remaining side of the brain to take over many of the functions from the half that was cut away.
2. Tooth-In-Eye Surgery
Pioneered by the Italian ophthalmic surgeon Benedetto Strampelli, Osteo-odonto-keratoprosthesis, better known as “tooth in eye surgery”, is a medical procedure to restore vision and fix damaged eye tissue. It’s a three-phase operation. First, a tooth is removed from the patient’s mouth. Second, an artificial cornea is created from a lamina of tissue cut from the tooth. Finally, the lamina is grown in the patient’s cheek before being implanted in the eye. The idea is that the immune system won’t attack the tooth and reject the transplant because it’s comprised of the patient’s own cheek and tooth tissue.
1. Uterus Transplant
Doctors in Sweden have performed nine successful uterus transplants. Five of the nine transplants resulted in birth. All the women were in their 30s and either born without a uterus or had it removed because of cervical cancer. While doctors have been increasingly transplanting hands and faces, womb transplants push the frontier of medical research.
In March, a 26-year old woman named Lindsay was the first woman to get a uterus transplant in the U.S. Unfortunately, Lindsay experienced a complication and the uterus had to be removed. Lindsay’s uterus transplant is the first of ten planned by the Cleveland Clinic, and despite its initial failure the hospital is going forward with the trial.