Worldwide icon-chevron-right North America icon-chevron-right United States icon-chevron-right Illinois icon-chevron-right Chicago icon-chevron-right DIY emergency medicine

DIY emergency medicine

Take your life into your own hands.
By Ruth Welte. Illustration by Jason Lee. |

You never should’ve snuck into that abandoned house to eat a whole ham alone, and now you’ve got a giant bone stuck in your craw and no one around to help. Not to worry: “Find the corner of a chair or the corner of a table,” says Dr. James Rhee, an emergency-medicine specialist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Line the furniture up with your stomach, just below the ribs. “Apply a quick thrust,” Rhee says. If there’s no chair or table around, he notes, “you can use your fist, but you might not be able to generate as much force.… Push as hard as you can.” Repeat until you succeed or suffocate.

Before you attempt Javier Bardem–style hotel-room surgery, consider just leaving the bullet where it is—for good. “In the movies, you’ll take your big bowie knife and stick it in a fire, slug down some whiskey and start digging, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” says Dr. Jason Koh, vice chairman of the orthopedic surgery department in the NorthShore University health system. Most of the time, doctors opt to leave the bullet where it is and just repair the damage it’s done, Koh says. The risk of infection is surprisingly low. “[Infection] doesn’t seem to be that common, in part because the bullet is pretty hot [and therefore sterile],” Koh explains. So put those pliers away: Instead, wash the area, apply pressure to stop the bleeding and hope the bullet didn’t shred any vital organs.

Once again, you shouldn’t go imitating what you’ve seen in the movies. “You don’t need to boil any water or tear any sheets,” says Dr. Robert Kelsey, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Medical School. Instead, get a clean towel, a shoelace and a turkey baster. Don’t rush the little bugger: “You shouldn’t pull at all, because you can cause injury to the baby,” Kelsey says. Once he’s made his grand entrance, Kelsey says, wrap him in the towel and use the turkey baster to gently suck any liquid out of his nose and mouth. Use the shoelace to tie off the umbilical cord, which will stop the flow of blood so the baby doesn’t bleed out. Take a 20-minute breather while (hopefully) the placenta delivers, then cut the umbilical cord. No need to sterilize the scissors beforehand: “[The umbilical cord] all dries up and falls off anyway,” Kelsey explains. Now’s as good a time as any to persuade the mom to name the baby after you.

Looking to do a little self-sewing? “I’d probably use fishing line, because it’s smooth,” Koh says. Other supplies on the list include a needle (Koh uses curved ones in surgery—we found a curved quilting needle for a couple of bucks at a craft store) and rubbing alcohol. Wash your hands and boil the needle in an inch of water for five minutes while you prep the fishing line. “Wipe down that piece of fishing line with alcohol, so it’s sterilized,” Koh says. For DIY anesthesia, rub a piece of ice on the wound for a couple of minutes. The effect doesn’t last long, so hopefully you were the fastest stitcher in home-ec class. Poke the needle into your skin a couple of millimeters from the edge of the cut and down through the flesh in a half circle that comes out on the other side of the cut. Right about now, you’ll be wishing you’d bought that curved needle. Keep going over and through, pulling the cut gently closed as you go. “You don’t want to leave a hollow pocket—[it] will fill with fluid, and if that fluid gets infected, you’ve got an abscess,” Koh warns. Knot the end and wipe your handiwork with alcohol before you pass out.

More to explore