Houdini: A Case Study in Trauma

Today's Trauma Care Could Have Saved HoudiniThe May 21, 2009 on-line edition of the journal Advance for LPNs features Cynthia Blank Reid captivating review of the ultimately unsuccessful trauma treatment administered Harry Houdini.

Ms. Reid approaches the Houdini case not as a magic historian or Houdini enthusiast.  Her expertise is in medical miracles.  She works as a trauma clinical nurse specialist in Philadelphia and her perspective is illuminating.

She  gives a clinical evaluation of Houdini’s physical condition prior to his appendicitis. 

“Houdini was a relatively small man, standing 5’5″,” she writes.  “He kept himself in shape by swimming, running and doing acrobatics. His medical history was unremarkable until early October 1926, when a series of events would culminate in his death.”

Houdini’s ability and willingness to perform through pain was evidenced when he broke a bone earlier in that fateful year.

“Then, one night in 1926, while performing his famous Water Torture Cell escape, during which Houdini hung suspended upside-down in a chamber of water, ropes secured to his feet were jerked improperly, causing his ankle to break. Houdini refused medical care, insisting the show go on.”

She recounts the slugging received from a McGill University student and his complaints of stomach pain later that evening.

The next day, Houdini, Bess and his assistants caught a late train and traveled 1,000 miles to begin shows in Detroit. While on the train, he experienced stomach pains so severe Bess telegraphed ahead to request a doctor meet them at the Statler Hotel.
Unfortunately, the train was late and there was no time to go to the hotel, so everyone went directly to the old Garrick Theater to set up for the next show.

At the theater, Houdini, suffering from a 104º F fever, was diagnosed with acute appendicitis by Daniel Cohn, MD. He recommended emergency surgery.

Houdini refused and went on with the show, which started 30 minutes late. He collapsed after the first act, but was able to revive himself and continue with the rest of the show.

After the final act, he collapsed again and was taken to the hotel. This time, Dr. Cohn brought with him Charles S. Kennedy, MD, chief of surgery at Detroit’s Grace Hospital. He agreed Houdini needed an operation. Houdini then called his personal physician, William Stone, who was at home in New York.
Only after the physicians consulted on the phone did Houdini agree to go to Grace Hospital.

Ms. Reid finds that while Houdini died from peritonitis stemming from his ruptured appendix, there remain questions about the case.
Seven days before he passed away, surgeons performed an appendectomy. 

The doctors “discovered his appendix was ruptured and gangrenous. He also was suffering from a fulminating streptococcal peritonitis. There were no antibiotics. Doctors told Bess his illness was fatal.

While Houdini would rally slightly after a second operation five days later designed to remove some of the infection, it was short-lived.

Ms. Reid suggests Houdini’s case is worth study for even modern professionals.  She points out there are no reported cases of “an appendix being ruptured by blunt trauma. Could Houdini’s be the first?” 

If the slugging did not cause the rupture, could it still have had some role in the spread of the infection?

“Is it possible an abscess had formed around his appendix? The abscess would have walled off the infection, but when he was struck in the abdomen, did it rupture?”  she suggests.  

“There are documented cases of appendix abscesses, and some of them have ruptured. Was Houdini already suffering from appendicitis when he received the blows to his abdomen? If so, did it cause him to delay seeking medical treatment for any discomfort until it was too late?”

Ms. Reid believes that if Houdini presented the same symptoms in a modern trauma center today, the doctors would still operate on the magician.  The surgery plus today’s antibiotics would have most certainly saved his life.

Check out the on-line version of LPN Advance here.

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