September 21, 2009


A few years ago, our herd queen Dream decided to challenge our dog. She threatened to head butt him, and Dawg bit her on the shoulder, pulling an L-shaped flap of skin loose from her side. Fortunately it was just a skin wound. Because it was a weekend and our vet's office was closed (he doesn't make farm calls), I stitched it myself.

I used nylon thread, thinking that cotton thread would invite infection by holding germs and "oozy stuff" from the wound. Nylon thread is hard to work with, especially to tie, but I did manage to get her stitched up in a reasonably sterile manner. I put her on the milkstand with some feed and she stood still for me, thankfully. The milkstand was against a wall which helped to control her too.

Her skin was much tougher than I'd expected. Poking the needle through was hard work and I wished for my thimble. I made five stitches to hold her skin together; I probably could have done a few more so the gaps between stitches were smaller, but since the thread was hard to work with and the poor goat was being so good about the whole thing, I did the best I could and called it good enough.

I gave her a course of antibiotics, and kept the wound as clean as I could on a barnyard animal. After a week or so I removed the stitches. Dream recovered very well, and you can't even see a scar now unless she is wearing her very short summer coat.

At a Civil War re-enactment some years ago, our family learned that the South had a better survival rate than the North when sutures were involved. The North used silk thread. Because it was expensive, the doctor would use that thread on more than one patient, and sterilization wasn't practiced back then. The thread would go through one patient, be tied off and cut, and then used on another soldier, germs and all. If the strand was long enough, it would be used again on a third soldier. Visualize a sewing thread: the part that is used and cut off is the bottom of the strand, and the top of the thread, the part in the needle, is then used again until it is too short to use anymore. This means that the thread at the top, in the needle, has gone through two, three or perhaps even more patients, collecting germs and gore from the men before. The first patient was the fortunate one.

The South, because of the blockade, had no silk thread and resorted to using what they had in abundance: strands of hair from their horses' tails. Since it was in ready supply, the doctor used it on one patient, tied and cut it, and tossed away the rest of the strand, using a new one on the next patient. Also, they boiled it to make it softer and more pliable, thus sterilizing it unknowingly. Rather fascinating, isn't it?

Using this history lesson, if I ever needed to suture something up again, I would use horsehair, and boil it to make it easier to use as well as to sterilize it. However, it wouldn't be a bad thing to have a "real" suture kit in my emergency kit.

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