Medical Malpractice and the Death of a President

One of history’s most famous cases of medical malpractice involved President James Garfield.  Garfield was shot twice by frustrated office seeker, Charles Guiteau.  Garfield’s doctors malpracticed Vice President Chester Arthur into the Whitehouse.  One bullet lodged in the President’s torso.  Doctor after doctor probed the wound with unwashed fingers and instruments.  One is thought to have touched manure shortly before inserting a digit.  Infection set in and the President slowly and painfully wasted away.

In a desperate attempt to locate the bullet, Alexander Graham Bell was brought to Garfield’s bedside.  Bell’s use of a newly-invented metal detector caused the President to fear electrocution.  Bell was unknowingly frustrated by the coil spring mattress upon which the President rested.  Had Bell moved Garfield to the floor, he would have found the bullet and surgeons could have saved him.  The President died 2 ½ months after the shooting.

In 1881, American medicine was undergoing great changes.  Therapies such as bleeding, purging and blistering were falling away.  Doctors were just beginning to understand the relationship between germs and disease.  Blood transfusions, antibiotics, antisepsis, IV fluids, x-rays and standard resuscitative measures such as monitoring of blood pressure either did not exist or had not yet been fully accepted.

President James Garfield’s doctors were woefully uninformed in their outdated allopathic practices. Fast forward 100 years.  Ronald Reagan is shot at close range.  His wounds are more serious than Garfield’s, and included a punctured lung.  He is twenty years older than was Garfield in 1881.  How far modern medicine has come.  Reagan is back to work within two weeks.

Had James Garfield been shot in 1981, he would have rapidly recovered from his injuries.  American medicine in 1881 simply was not as open to antisepsis as were doctors in Europe. The rest is history.

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