307: Back in the Saddle

It didn’t take long at all for Claire to rediscover the need for her medical skills in 18th century Edinburgh and she started off her new medical practice with a doozy!  I’m glad to finally learn about the patient we’ve seen for 7 episodes now int he season three credits.  I’ve been dying to know who the poor soul was who needed Claire’s trephination skills and today we learned the fate of the victim.

trephination
Property of STARZ

While the procedure Claire performed on her patient appears quite crude, it is actually one of the oldest medical procedures still used in practice today!

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Trephination tools, 1802.  Source: Creative Commons

The injury to his head resulting from his fall onto the stone hearth has caused the exciseman to develop an epidural hematoma.  This is a condition in which a strong blow to the head results in damage to an artery surrounding the brain, leading to the rapid accumulation of blood between the outer protective membrane (dura) of the brain and the skull.  Being quite solid, the skull is not going to bend or swell to accommodate this rapidly accumulating blood, so instead, the brunt of this expanding mass of blood is placed on the brain, compressing delicate brain tissues and increasing pressure to devastating effect.  In response to an epidural hematoma and the resulting compression of the brain, a patient characteristically experiences weakness or paralysis on the opposite side of the body.  Swelling of the brain then causes compression of other parts of the brain, including the third cranial nerve, resulting in dilation of the pupil of the eye on the same side of the head as the injury.

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CT showing an epidural hematoma – note the lens shaped white hemorrhage.    Source: Wikipedia Commons

After hearing the sickening clunk of the exciseman’s skull on the hearth and allowing a moment for the shock of her attack to wane, Claire jumps into action.  It isn’t exactly clear how she so quickly landed on the diagnosis of epidural hematoma.  Classically (though of course not always), a patient with an epidural hematoma will initially have loss of consciousness, then awaken and experience a “lucid interval” before losing consciousness again as the hematoma grows and exerts its effects.  We didn’t see this play out in the episode.  Claire seems to make the diagnosis while he is still unconscious after the initial blow.  In modern times, these are diagnosed on CT scan or are suspected in a patient with a head injury along with a lucid interval and/or characteristic changes in the pupils.  Claire checks the patient’s pupils and states there is still time.  Does this mean the pupils are normal?  If they are normal, what are the clues she is using to deduce that he has an epidural hematoma?  If the pupils are not normal and the left pupil is ominously dilated, there isn’t much time to waste.  Hmm…

To relieve this pressure, a hole must be drilled into the skull to allow evacuation of the blood and relieve the excess pressure within the cranium.  When time allows, a neurosurgeon performs a craniotomy in the operating room.  However, this is quite time sensitive as the hematoma rapidly expands, causing significant injury to the brain.  In austere environments or in situations when transport to an operating room will take more time than the patient has, a burr hole is made to rapidly decrease the pressure.  While this is now done with a specialized hand-held drill rather than a hand crank trephine, the procedure is pretty much as Claire demonstrated.

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As Claire readies for surgery and examines her patient’s pupils once more, she finds the left pupil is dilated, pressure is increasing, and she must move now.  She deftly drills a burr hole in the skull to allow the pressure to be relieved and to evacuate the blood.  However, despite her efforts, the exciseman has died of his injury.  Even today, epidural hematomas have a mortality rate ranging from less than 5% to as high as 41%, depending on the patient’s age, the size of the hematoma, the effect of the pressure on the brain, and timing of surgical intervention.  Claire gave the exciseman the best chance he could have had for survival in the 18th century and did what she knew to be morally right thing to do.

A Little Help from the Apothecary

Claire requested laudanum, ground yarrow root, and tormentil from the apothecary. Laudanum, for obvious reasons (though that apothecary seems to stock an amazing formula that works instantaneously!  That patient was OUT quickly!).  Yarrow root and tormentil have hemostatic properties to help stop bleeding, which also make good sense in this situation and my guess is they are for topical application to the wounds.

Herbal medicine was certainly not covered in any depth, if at all, in Claire’s medical education.  I always wonder whether she spent time on her own in Boston over the years learning about herbal remedies, storing those tidbits for possible future (past?!) reference?

I’m sure seeing Claire perform trephination on the exciseman wasn’t everyone’s cuppa tea, but my guess is that if you are reading this, you enjoy this stuff too.  Getting excited for the loa loa, plague ships, and hernias yet to come!   How about you?  What Voyager medical scenes are you hoping make it to the screen?

 

 

 

 

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304: Murphy’s Sign

Well, this doctor was the patient this week for a wee bit of knee surgery and recovering nicely (but where is Claire and her medicinal whisky when I need her?).  I’m squeezing in a quick post about episode 304 just before the next episode is available on streaming in about a half hour!

What was this pressing surgery that Joe called Claire about?

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Harry Greenbaum has abdominal pain, a positive Murphy’s sign, and calcifications on his x-ray.  Hmmm.  What’s going on?

What is Murphy’s sign? 

Murphy’s sign is a test performed during physical exam of the abdomen that may indicate the presence of inflammation of the gall bladder.  The examiner palpates the abdomen just under the rib cage on the right side as the patient inspires.  During inspiration, the abdominal contents (including the gallbladder) move downward because the lungs are expanding.  If the patient halts inspiration due to pain while the area is palpated, this is considered a positive Murphy’s sign.  See below the location of the gallbladder in the right upper part of the abdomen just under the ribcage:

 

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Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

What about those calcifications?

Could they be gall stones?  The could, though most gall stones are made up of cholesterol and are not visible on x-ray.  In fact, only 15-20% of gallstones are visible on x-ray.  Today, these are most commonly diagnosed on ultrasound.

The calcifications on Harry’s x-ray could also be a porcelain gall bladder, or a condition when the gall bladder wall becomes calcified due to chronic inflammation, generally associated with gall stones and occasionally associated with cancer of the gall bladder.  This type of calcification is easily seen on x-ray.

Either way, it is time for Harry’s gall bladder to be removed.  Because Joe made it a point to call Claire in Scotland to discuss this, my guess is that Harry is a long time patient of Claire’s and Joe wanted to give her the chance to perform the surgery herself if she would be back in time.  Cholecystectomy, or surgical removal of the gall bladder, is a routine surgery and certainly not anything Joe would need Claire to return for, if there were not other circumstances surrounding this case.

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Whew!  Done with a few minutes to spare!  On to episode 305 as this patient continues to enjoy a little bit of downtime recovering from surgery herself!

Cheers!

Outlander images property of STARZ