Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Saving the Drowned

It goes without saying that drowning was always a possibility at sea and, whether we like to admit it or not in an era of harbor tours and pleasure cruises, still is. From reed fishing boats along the ancient Nile to so called unsinkable luxury liners such as the Titanic, people have lost their lives to the dark depths in their thousands throughout history.

Though the thought might surprise the modern mind, many if not most of the career sailors in the Great Age could not swim. As Patrick O’Brian notes in his Aubrey/Maturin masterpieces, there was a sort of common belief that simple drowning was better than struggling against the vast sea, only to drown anyway. This makes sense given situations like battle or storm, where no rescue would be forthcoming for the man overboard. But what of more common situations, where a man fell in while painting or doing repairs of some kind and rescue was possible?

The primary sources, such as surgeons’ diaries, are oddly silent on what was to be done with a man who had nearly drowned. That does not mean, however, that our ancestors did not know what to do in such cases.

We’ve talked about the inimitable authority Lydia Maria Child before, whose 1837 publication The Family Nurse imparts a wealth of information about the treatment of just about any ailment or injury one can think of. She spares a chapter in her book on what to do in the case of “loss of life through drowning”, and it has to be said that, with some modifications, the same procedures were applied when the unthinkable occurred aboard ship.

Mrs. Child’s foremost concern in a case of drowning is getting the victim warm. “… restore natural warmth, by hot and stimulating applications,” she says in no uncertain terms, even using italics to make her point clear. She warns that the “body” should be carried “in as natural a posture as possible” with the head lifted up. Wet clothes should be removed immediately, the victim placed in a warm bed, and warmed items such as bricks wrapped in flannel should be applied to “the bowels and feet.” The skin should be rubbed vigorously with “course cloth”; Mrs. Child highly recommends flannel mittens.

These are the initial treatments; Mrs. Child does not get around to addressing water in the throat or lungs or even breathing until after she has her patient on the road to warming up. Then she says:

Snuff or ginger [may be] blown up the nose… A strong person may hold his nostrils and blow his breath into the patient’s mouth with all his force; if the chest rises, desist from blowing, and press the breast and belly, so as to expel the air again; this operation may be repeated, in imitation of natural breathing.

The obvious comparison to modern mouth-to-mouth resuscitation goes without saying. Mrs. Child even stresses the importance of continuing the procedure despite the lack of immediate response. “Blowing into the lungs, &c., should be tried, and long persevered in.”

Once the victim is sensible enough to swallow, vomiting may be induced. This is a typical reaction of the era, where purging of some kind was used as a virtual panacea, but Mrs. Child is careful to instruct that emetics should not be used. “It is safer to induce vomiting by tickling the throat with an oiled feather.” In fact, the violent act of throwing up would probably have helped, at least somewhat, to expel water trapped in the lungs.

Mrs. Child notes that there is a good possibility of upper respiratory congestion and fever. Here, she recommends bleeding and, perhaps more soundly, rest and the administration of flax-seed tea with “a few grains of ipecac in it, may be given to loosen the cough.”

With few exceptions, the advice given by Mrs. Child is sound. A person suffering “lose of life” by drowning could indeed be saved but, as with so many other things, practical knowledge would be necessary to affect a positive outcome.

Header: The Battle of the Chesapeake 1781 by Patrick O’Brien via Marine Artists


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Showing once again that our ancestors knew more than we give them credit for, generally speaking.

Cool painting, too.

And last but certainly not least, congrats on your nomination for the "Very Inspiring Blogger Award"! Well desrved. You Rock!

Pauline said...

Once again, we moderns aren't as smart as we think we are.

And thank you; more on the surprising VIB nomination to Triple P tomorrow!