Exploring Illness
Time and Place

c u l t u r e s


s y m p t o m s

Fevers and Chills

An Injured Limb

Swollen Sores

An Injured Limb in the Late 20th Century United States

In the late 20th century, a person with a painful and traumatic deformation of her arm usually arrived at an emergency room affiliated with a hospital. She may have arrived in an ambulance, or been driven to the hospital by a friend or family member. Depending upon the degree of trauma, she might have been made to wait in a waiting room or examining curtain, or might have been attended to immediately by a doctor.

A doctor (probably male) would feel the arm, paying particular attention to the area that was bruised and painful. He would ask what activities the patient had been engaged in, and how the injury occurred. He might examine the non-injured arm to see what the patient normally looks like. He would also note the patient's age and gender. After checking other parts of the extremity for injuries, he would call for a particular series of roentgenograms. The patient would be wheeled in a chair into a special room, where a technician would take several x-rays of the patient's arm (see image). After a some minutes, the exposed film would emerge from a developing machine, showing images of bones of the arm. The original doctor, or possibly a different doctor who specializes in reading radiographs, would examine the films and diagnose a broken arm.

Depending upon the severity of the injury, the patient might be taken upstairs to an operating room. Most arm fractures would not require surgery however. An anesthetic would be administered, either locally in the area of the fracture, or intravenously. The doctor, and a nurse working at his direction, would set the bone in place. A cart containing a bucket of water, commercially-made plaster bandages, padding, and a sock to cover the arm would be wheeled to the patient's bedside. While the nurse helped hold the arm and bone in the proper position, the doctor, or a specialist nurse, would then apply a plaster cast. After the plaster had set, the nurse might fit the patient with a sling, and give her instructions about how to bathe while wearing the cast, how to know if the cast was too tight, and how to properly care for the cast. Even if the woman had broken her writing hand, she would probably be asked to initial a sheet acknowledging that she had understood the instructions. (This helped to relieve the hospital of liability in case something went wrong.) Then she would be discharged, perhaps with a prescription for a moderately powerful analgesic.

A week later, the patient would present at a specialized fracture clinic, where her arm would be x-rayed again, and a doctor would check to see that the bones were in the right place. A few weeks later, if all went well, she would return to the clinic to have her cast removed by a large and noisy saw which mysteriously cut through plaster only, and did not harm the skin. The principle of how this saw worked would be explained to her, but she would not understand. The nurse would say, "trust me," and the patient would. But when she returned home, the patient would sleep with two healing crystals strapped above and below the fracture site, just in case.

Primary Sources

In the late 20th century, there are new sources available for seeing how people understand illness. For previous periods, many fewer sources can typically be found.

Here is one example of a patient making use of images of the inside of his body, a narrative about being treated, and medical illustrations to make sense of his traumatic experience: Greg's Broken Arm. This is also the story of the many whose arm bones are pictured above.

The following pages reveal how one Oklahoma City Man experienced his young son's recent broken arm. Note particularly the ambiguity of the injury, and the role that religious belief plays in the father's story: Part 1, Part 2.

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