a creepy, rusty old bedframe in the woods

Three Medical Stories Without Explanations

All three of these are second-hand, two are from people I know to be unreliable narrators, and the simplest explanation for all of them is “they were making it up.” But all three have been bothering me for a while, just because they could be true.

When she was in her twenties, a relative of mine woke up completely blind. Total blackness, both eyes. Her husband took her to the emergency room–he had to lead her by the arm, she couldn’t even see shapes–where they gave her a single injection that cured her. Since then, and it’s been many years, she has had no unusual vision or neurological problems.

Since hearing this story, I’ve graduated EMT school, nursing school, and worked in healthcare for over 15 years, and I still have no idea what that was, or what the injection could have been. Various eye problems can cause sudden blindness, but generally not in both eyes at the same time. There’s a whole list of neurological and vascular conditions that can cause sudden bilateral blindness, but all of them are Big Deals and not the sort of thing where you feel better right away and get discharged from the ED with no followup in a few hours.

The tempting diagnosis–particularly tempting since this relative has a certain inclination towards drama–is that it was psychogenic blindness, AKA conversion disorder. Which is not the same thing as faking, the patient really experiences it and can’t simply decide to start seeing again, but it does stem from psychological and not physical causes. And the shot that fixed everything would be Valium or something similar. It still doesn’t add up that there wouldn’t be extensive followup, but maybe she refused it, or edited that part out of the story, or things were different back in the day.

But of the things you learn in healthcare is that you don’t say “it’s psychogenic, take a Valium” about an unexplained symptom–and especially not an unexplained symptom in an emotionally intense young woman, the perfect patient to dismiss as “hysterical”–before you are goddamn sure. So I’m not going to do that here. I’m going to say I have no idea what happened, or why it so easily stopped happening.

In fifth grade, I had my first sex ed class, though I already knew most of the basics by then because I was a precocious reader and had extensively borrowed my family’s “Household Guide To Your Health” books (there wasn’t WebMD yet) for the two or three pages that tell you what a seminal vesicle is and frankly it’s amazing I didn’t develop a fetish for cutaway anatomical diagrams. The teacher explained about periods and yeah, yeah, I read that part too and I was still determined to believe it’d never happen to me.

Then she said with this sly little wink aside, “And men have their own cycle too… but you’ll learn about that when you’re older.”

I’m older now! I am 27 years older! In addition to the above-mentioned healthcare credentials I am also, hormonally speaking, a man myself now! I still have no idea what she was talking about.

The third story is by far the most gruesome, and the least likely to be true. The nurse who told it to me had a facility-wide reputation for being kind of a pain in the ass, if not specifically a liar. But she never told me any other big fish stories, and she included a lot of plausible details, some of which I’m omitting here because it’s HIPAA-risky if true. Like, she would have had to research and write this in advance, it was not improv. And you do see some soul-scarring things in long-term care. I took care of people who, while not to this level, were definitely more… deconstructed… than you would believe a human body could be and still continue mundane life.

Anyway. Here’s how it goes.

“In the nursing home I worked at before here, there was a patient who, before you were assigned to care for him, they would take you aside and tell you about him. So that you could prepare yourself, psychologically. He had had some kind of devastating cancer, and to remove it, the surgeons had to remove a whole section of his ribcage. But they still hoped that they could put it back once he was healed, so they’d grafted it back on to his shoulder, on the outside, like a shield1. They’d stripped away a lot of the muscle and tissue, so it was just bare bones, but the blood vessels and nerves were still connected, to keep the graft alive.

“When you were assigned to him, what you had to do, the thing they warned you about first, was change all the bandages on those ribs. They were wrapped in Xeroform2, and his dressing changes took hours, because you had to unwrap and re-wrap each rib individually. And he could feel the whole thing. He got some pain medication first, but you could still see it in his eyes, how painful it was for him.”

“They never got the chance to put his ribs back. He was too far gone for another surgery. He died like that.”

1pauldron. she was not the kind of nerd who would know that word.

2a vaseline-impregnated wound dressing, which is used on exposed bone to keep it from drying out.

Now, clearly she was messing with me and this doesn’t make any sense. Okay, there are surgeries where they’ll graft a severed hand to a random spot like your ankle (GNARLY PHOTO WARNING) to keep it alive while the stump heals enough to allow replantation. And there are surgeries where large blocks of ribs are removed–here’s one (no gory photos) where a patient had multiple ribs taken out because of cancer. But he had them replaced with titanium prosthetics. And here’s an article (no photos) about a cancer patient who had her ribs taken out, cooked, and re-implanted.

But in years of searching I’ve never read about anything like this specifically, and I’m really not sure it checks out. How and why would he have sensation in the ribs? How were the blood vessels hooked up without soft tissue? Can bone even stay alive in that situation? And ribs are a lot less complicated than hands–how could this situation possibly have been preferable to a cadaver graft or artificial materials?

Occam’s Razor is that she was bullshitting the new kid, but Occam’s Keep You Up At Night is, well, you really do see some shit in long-term care.

  • Pax
    January 25, 2023 at 22:16

    Oh, I had a friend who went randomly blind for a day! It was right before a major professional accomplishment would be finished, she’d been working extra hard (and was already one of the hardest workers around) for a deadline, and she very much fit the bill of emotionally intense young woman. Buuuut she also had been trying to power through a migraine for more than one day prior to the incident, so it doesn’t fit the “no neurological symptoms; somehow not a symptom of anything” bill. (and she, having been bullshitted by doctors many a time because of her gender, affect, and age, would have absolutely lost it if someone told her it was psychosomatic and nothing to worry about – fairly, as I think you agree!)

  • sarcozona
    January 27, 2023 at 07:42

    I think your teacher was talking about the daily hormonal cycle most men experience which leads to a peak in arousal typically in the morning

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