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Thursday, January 23, 2020  

History rife with medical tall talesPublished 10/14/2002

by Mike Liguori

Tales of woefully lost patients and wacky medical crises are common in the lore from the emergency room, but in the Internet age, it’s become too easy for tall tales to circulate as fact.

Recently, e-mails and Web pages have been making the rounds about some outrageously stupid and unfortunate patients. Here are a few examples:

"A 28-year-old male was brought into the ER after an attempted suicide. The man had swallowed several nitroglycerin pills and a fifth of vodka. When asked about the bruises about his head and chest he said that they were from him ramming himself into the wall in an attempt to make the nitroglycerin explode."

"A woman with shortness of breath and who weighed approximately 500 lbs was dragged into the ER on a tarp by six firemen. While trying to undress the lady, an asthma inhaler fell out of one of the folds under her arm. After an X-ray showed a round mass on the left side of her chest, her massive left breast was lifted to find a shiny new dime. And last but not least, during a pelvic exam, a TV remote control was discovered in one of the folds of her crotch. She became known as ‘The Human Couch.’"

The stories above might actually be true, or at least based on actual events. Attempts to verify them on the Internet came up empty. One popular Internet myth Web site lists the "Human Couch" story as suspect, but

entirely possible.

As anyone in the health profession knows, anything is possible. Entire books have been devoted to wild stories from hospital receiving rooms.

Astonishing medical stories are nothing new, but neither are the characters who make them up. One of the earliest recorded medical hoaxes of an outrageous nature happened in 1726, according to author Clifford Pickover.

Early that year, surgeon John Howard was called to the home of Mary Toft in Godalming, England. Much to his astonishment, he helped her give birth to a rabbit, born dead.

After helping her deliver eight more dead rabbits during the next few days, Howard excitedly wrote to other scientists and doctors around the country, urging them to help him investigate. Nathanael St. Andre, surgeon-anatomist to King George I, and Sir Richard Manningham, a London obstetrician, came to Toft’s home to learn more.

Toft explained to the men that she had recently miscarried, but during the pregnancy she had an intense hunger for rabbit meat. After dreaming that there were rabbits in her lap, she began giving birth to them.

In total, Toft bore 17 rabbits in the presence of the doctors. But her unique version of the rabbit in the hat trick began to unravel when tests were performed on her big-eared offspring.

When placed in water, part of a rabbit lung from Toft’s litter floated, indicating that the animal breathed air before it died – impossible inside a womb. The lack of umbilical cords or placenta also should have tipped off the doctors.

Regardless, St. Andre declared the births legitimate and published his findings. Unfortunately for the King’s doctor, it wasn’t long before Toft’s cat was out of the bag, so-to-speak.

Several men confessed to supplying Toft’s husband with rabbits. When threatened with a surgical uterus exam, Toft confessed that she had put the dead rabbits inside her womb. After a short time in jail for fraud, she was released, but St. Andre and Howard weren’t so fortunate – their reputations and careers were ruined by the incident.

The tradition of lying has carried on to modern times, often with more galling results. While shockingly greedy schemes can be difficult to sniff out, phony stories on the Web can usually be quickly put to rest.

Online hoaxes and folklore, including phony computer viruses and terrorism threats, are documented on a number of credible Web sites. Purportal.com is a great place to start because it has links to a variety of myth-busting sites.

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