“Code Blue!” was first announced in 1964 over the intercom of Bethany Medical Center in Kansas City. It meant that a patient’s heart had stopped beating and it brought Dr. Robert Potter running, pushing a cart that his father, a sheet-metal fabricator, had cobbled together. The cart contained a bed board, used to quickly move a patient, tubes for insertion into a patient’s windpipe, a bag used to force air into the lungs, and defibrillator paddles, together weighing about a hundred pounds, that were electrified and applied to a patient’s chest to restart their heart.
Experiments using electric shock to restart the heart had been conducted by Russian and other European doctors since the mid 1950s. Potter’s innovation was refining the process and making it portable. Defibrillation quickly spread to hospitals across the US. Soon 911 lines and ambulance services were able to deliver cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR, rhythmic external pressure to the heart combined with the use of portable defibrillators), to any person anywhere in the country. While doctors quickly adopted defibrillation, which saves lives about forty percent of the time, the public saw CPR as nothing short of a miracle. Even today, TV shows depict the procedure as life-saving seventy-five percent of the time.
The earliest sheet-metal carts, writes William H. Colby in Unplugged: Reclaiming Our Right to Die in America, “were unstable... and it wasn’t uncommon to round a corner in a hurry, and have the whole contraption tip over—hence the name ‘crash cart.’” “Code Blue” referred to either the color that Potter’s father had painted the carts or the color that a patient turned when their heart stopped circulating oxygen. Despite the clown car scramble, Dr. Potter’s “Code Blue” could save lives—it could reclaim a person from the clutches of death.
For the entire course of human existence, death had meant one thing: the almost simultaneous end of heartbeat, breathing and brain function. Victorian-era doctors held a mirror in front of a patient’s mouth and nose, looking for steam. Into the 1960s, the ultimate test, often reluctantly performed by the newest intern on the hospital ward, was to touch a patient’s eyeball with a piece of cotton. The corner of a hospital gown was likely the closest thing at hand. If the patient didn’t blink, the ghost had been given up.Continue reading » December 4, 2013
The victim of the first big mistake I ever made was a gentleman to whom I had never been properly introduced (and whose name I still do not know) but who was possessed of three singular qualities: he was alone in a room with me, he was without his trousers, and he was very, very dead.
Some context might be useful. It was the winter of 1962. I was eighteen years old and had taken a year off before going up to Oxford University. I also had a girlfriend far away in Montreal, and in the superheated enthusiasm of my puppy love, I had promised to visit her. The fact that I then lived in London and she three thousand miles away meant that fare money had to be amassed: I had to get a job, and one that paid well enough to allow me to get away to Canada as quickly as possible.
London had two evening papers back then, the News and the Standard. It was in the classified columns of one that I spied the advertisement: “Mortuary Assistant required,” it said. “Eleven pounds weekly.” The bar to entry was hardly Himalayan. “Some basic knowledge of human anatomy an advantage, though not essential. Telephone Mr. Utton, Whittington Hospital, Highgate.”
I knew Whittington, a great, gaunt Victorian redbrick workhouse of a building on a north-London hillside along the A1, one of the roads leading in and out of the capital. Karl Marx was buried in the cemetery around the corner. There was a lovely park up the hill.
The mortuary, if not perhaps especially congenial, certainly was well-fitted to my interests. I had just passed, and rather well, my A Level examinations in chemistry, physics and zoology, for the latter, under the invigilation of a small man named Mr. Hawthorne, I had dissected on the slab just about every imaginable type of creature, from amphioxus to zebra. Well, perhaps not zebra, but certainly very many mammals, including rabbits aplenty. And believing that a human is basically a very large rabbit, minus those ears and tail, prompted me to pick up the Bakelite telephone on our hall table and call Mr. Utton.
He seemed surprised. Pleased, too, for it turned out no one else had applied for his job. “Necrophobia,” he whispered darkly. “A puzzling failing,” I explained to him my sanguine notion of man's comparability to a big rabbit; he laughed, and wondered aloud why more people didn't think that way. An interview followed: Utton turned out to be tall and solid man with a clubfoot and a ready laugh. I told him that I was rather more interested in the money than the biology; he responded that in addition to wages, he paid a per-body bonus of four shillings, and that a quick worker could soon be in pretty decent funds. “All these London fogs,” he remarked. “They're killers. Bodies just pile up here.”Continue reading » November 25, 2013
There was a lot to be afraid of in New York after the Revolutionary War. Burned buildings loomed out of dark, crooked streets, which met at strange angles. Fights broke out in the taverns, while thieves lurked in the shadows. Families huddled in shantytowns constructed out of ships’ canvasses, while garbage piled high on the corners. The city watch was nothing more than forty men with clubs.
Besides the thieves and the brawls, people feared the medical students. The young men in black suits who studied at Columbia College and New York Hospital did as their teachers from England and Scotland had done: they learned anatomy by dissecting bodies stolen from the local cemeteries. In London and Edinburgh, a quasi-professional class of grave-robbers known as the “Resurrection Men” dug fresh corpses from the cemeteries of the poor and brought them to the medical school. In eighteenth-century New York, the medical students robbed the graves themselves, sneaking into cemeteries on cold, moonless nights and carrying wooden shovels to avoid the loud scrape of metal on stone.
But the bodies on the dissecting tables in New York often had a different hue than the bodies in Europe. African-born slaves had been in New York since 1626, when the Dutch imported eleven men from Central and Southern Africa to construct the earliest buildings of the settlement. In the years that followed, the city’s population of Africans—from Congo, Ghana, Ashanti, Benin, and other states—swelled with slaves imported to farm the fields. The English continued the trade, and by the mid-eighteenth century enslaved Africans were unloading cargo at the docks, piloting boats carrying produce from Long Island, building ships, and constructing and repairing the city streets. At the start of the Revolution, New York had more enslaved Africans than any English colonial settlement except Charleston, South Carolina. By the end of the Revolution, about a fifth of the city’s population was of African descent.Continue reading » November 22, 2013