Western Trivia: Patient Sustenance

Warning! This post examines the history of feeding tubes;  if you’re easily grossed out, it might not be for you!

In one of my novels, a woman falls into a coma after the birth of her child. I needed to know what specific methods there were in the 1880s for nourishing a comatose patient. What I found surprised me.

Before the popular acceptance of feeding tubes (the type that were forced down the throat), nutrition was given to comatose patients via enema. The most common preparation at the time of my stories was a mixture of beef broth and whiskey! President Garfield lived on that limited diet for 79 days after he was shot.

james garfield

President James Garfield

But the history of feeding tubes goes back to the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations, where a bladder attached to a reed was used to feed patients. In the US, the most common conduit was a hollow bone, specifically whalebone. A major development as far as patient comfort was concerned was wrapping the bone in eelskin. By the 1870s, these bone-and-skin contraptions were replaced with flexible leather tubes, again affording the patient more comfort and allowing the tube to go as far as the esophagus.

It’s interesting to note that another device was used for patients who could swallow but didn’t want to eat. It looked like a teapot with an extra-long spout and might be filled with a mixture of milk, egg, beef tea and wine thickened with arrowroot. It was commonly used in mental hospitals at the time and also, according to one source, on “fasting girls and spoilt children who, when ill, refuse food”.

Hmmm … if I had a dollar for every time … all I can say is I’m glad my mother didn’t know about this!

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