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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Today’s surgeons would find much that is familiar in Civil War operating room

Dr. John Ocheltree, left, of Staunton “operates” on Roman Marciniak. Assisting are Bill Burks, center, and Larry Bandy.

If modern-day surgeons could visit a Civil War field hospital, they’d recognize much of what they saw. They’d also be repulsed.

To demonstrate, Dr. John Ocheltree took an ungloved hand and probed with his finger to find the bullet that had injured his “patient.” After “amputating” the man’s leg on Saturday, Ocheltree wiped his bloody knife on his sleeve.

Civil War surgeons were amazingly successful, Ocheltree said, but they also were burdened by what they didn’t know, such as the germ theory of disease.

A Staunton podiatrist in real life, Ocheltree is also a student of Civil War medicine and was among the costumed participants in last weekend’s anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. His great-great-grandfather, James Logan Dunlap of the 5th Virginia Infantry, was wounded at the battle 150 years ago.

“I had to be here,” he said.

With the “battle” raging nearby, Ocheltree was on duty at the 5th Virginia’s field hospital, a tent set up on the lawn at Brompton. His “patient” was a 26-year-old conscript from Spotsylvania County, Roman Marciniak. The wounded soldier had been scooped from the battlefield by stewards, predecessors to the modern day rescue squad, and brought to the hospital by horse-drawn ambulance.

For the demonstration, Marciniak pretended to have been shot near the right knee. His lower leg was dusky with no pulse at the ankle, so Ocheltree decided to amputate. An attendant used a funnel and sponge, placed over Marciniak’s mouth, to administer anesthesia.

One of the myths of Civil War surgery is that surgeons worked without anesthesia, Ocheltree said.  Surgeons did not have IV fluids or blood to transfuse, but they did have chloroform and ether, he said. Both liquids immobilized patients and allowed surgeries to be done pain-free.  Injured soldiers did not have to bite on bullets for relief, he said.

To remove the leg, Ocheltree used a knife and saw, implements that would be familiar to a modern surgeon. He made a “guillotine” cut, north-to-south, through skin, muscle, fat and bone. When done, he tossed the severed leg into a basket behind him.

“A good surgeon could remove a leg in 3 to 5 minutes,” he said.

Ocheltree stitched the blood vessels in the leg with sutures made of boiled horse hair. He packed the wound with dressing and bandaged it. The wounded soldier would be taken behind the lines for a recovery that lasted 2 to 3 months, he said. Laudanum, a narcotic, was used for pain relief. More than 80 percent of amputees survived, he said.

When he amputates a toe at his practice in Staunton, Ocheltree said he leaves a flap of skin to cover the wound. Civil War surgeons eventually started doing that, he said, which also made it easier for soldiers to wear prostheses.

“Through war, a lot is learned,” Ocheltree said.

(Sesquicentennial events continue this week. A schedule can be found here. One event that might interest Rapid Assessment readers is the presentation this Saturday, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., at Market Square, behind the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. John Hennessy,  National Park Service historian, will speak on how Fredericksburg became a “City of Hospitals” during the battle.) 

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