Friday, July 26, 2013


I've been mulling over all month about a topic. Western weather, and how brutal cattle drives and prairie farming must have been. Another real life western hero, or heroine... or a plug about my re-release of the Spur-Award winning Double Crossing (trust me, it's at the end of this post.) But then I thought about one of the most popular Western Fictioneer members, Dr. Keith Souter (w/a Clay More) and thought, "hey, he's a doctor. I have some questions about stuff I see in movies or books."

So that's what we're chatting about today, western wounds. The image to the left is an antique medical bag. Cool, huh? I love including photos on my blog posts. Okay, back to three types of common western wounds. Recovering, surviving, should-this-be-used-in-your-next-book kind of thing, which is called a genre trope. I call it a "how come they did that instead of ... " type of thing. I have a few beefs (or is that beeves?) about what I've read or seen in westerns.

We'll start with something simple and work our way up.

MEG:  Hey, howdy, Dr. Keith! Many thanks for agreeing to participate in "Ask the Expert" today. I've seen a few movies where either the western hero or an Indian *cuts palm* and then waits for the other guy to do the same so they can make a blood bond ... another friend HATES that and claims that injury is too severe, especially in a medieval when they'd pick up their sword or bow and arrow and try to use the weapon. So, maybe they should use their thumb instead?

Dr. Keith Souter:  Cutting the palm will produce a lot of blood, as anyone will know if they have cut themselves with a knife. A very superficial cut would be enough to allow for symbolic mixing of the blood. Of course, with our knowledge about communicable blood-borne diseases nowadays, one would realize that to become a blood-brother in such a ceremony, where severed surface was placed against severed surface, would have a very good chance of transmitting infection. But back then HIV had not developed.

A deep cut would endanger the superficial palmar arch, a ring of arteries formed from branches of the radial artery and the ulnar artery. I have attached a plate from Gray's Anatomy, which has been one the main textbooks of anatomy used by medical students and doctors since it was first published in 1859, by Henry Gray, of St George's Hospital in London. (There is a TV show called Grey's Anatomy, that is a play on the name - note the different spelling). A deep cut would risk arterial damage, which would cause spurting of blood. That would be a significant wound. There would also be significant danger of nerve damage. A superficial hand wound takes a week or so to heal. Deep wound could take weeks and even months, if there was a lot of damage.

However, nature is not so dumb, and we have a protective tissue called the palmar aponeurosis, which protects those deeper structures. That is important considering all the potential trauma that could happen to the palm. It is an extension of the palmaris longus muscle. It can be seen when you flex your hand, as the single tendon in the middle of the wrist. 

14 % of people do not have that single tendon, but they will still have an aponeurosis. I have attached another of Gray's illustrations of the palmar aponeurosis and you can see how it protects the arterial ring.

So, although nicking the thumb would seem adequate for the purpose, cutting the palm superficially would work. The depth of the palm wound would determine whether it could be used. For a simple superficial one, then yes you could use a sword, fire a gun and hold a bow. Wrap it up and grip. It would hurt, but it could be used. A deep wound with a sword or dagger could damage an artery or a nerve. That would not be so usable. And of course, if you breach the palmar aponeurosis and you cut through the muscles that operate the fingers and thumb, the hand will be useless.

Meg:  Wow, this is fabulous. Okay, question number two. In Hell on Wheels, the widowed wife of the surveyor is shot in the shoulder with an arrow. I've read tons of books where heroes are shot in the shoulder, too. I have a problem with them using that arm afterward, or staunching the bleeding and going on about their business. Just how credible is that?

Dr. Keith Souter:  You are quite correct. A shoulder wound is an awful thing to receive. You would have a large chance of smashing the humerus, or worse, damaging the joint itself. And then there is a huge chance of catastrophic bleeding and nerve damage. I have attached another of Gray's illustrations of the arteries and the nerves in the shoulder. This does not include the veins, of course, but they are in close proximity. The artery is in red and the nerves are in yellow. 

The nerve supply is called the brachial plexus. It is the M shaped grouping that you see. Essentially, nerve roots from the cervical part of the spine amalgamate to form the brachial plexus. The three branches of the M are respectively, the radial nerve, the median nerve and the ulnar nerve. Hit or damage any of them and you will produce paralysis of those parts of the arm and hand that they supply.  

Shoulder gunshot wounds are horrific and if you want  a wound that you can carry on with, it should be a flesh wound to the upper arm. Even that will be incapacitating, but it is more plausible.

Having said that, human beings are capable of amazing feats of endurance when they are in danger. But as for fighting with a shoulder wound? Not easy!

Now an arrowhead is a filthy thing. The arrowhead must be removed, but the yanking out that you see and read about will not work. It simply leaves the arrowhead in where it will fester. That could then develop into septicaemia and result in death. I have researched this and will quote Dr J.H. Bill from the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 1862, a surgeon with real and extensive experience of treating arrow wounds. "An arrow is designed so that its head will detach. Generally, when an arrow is fired it is designed to kill, not to maim." Read my April blog post, The Doctor's Bag, along with a few comments about poisoned arrow tips and how they made the poison.

Pistol balls would not travel as fast and made less of a mess than the Minie ball/bullet, which was used in the Civil War. It expanded and traveled faster and made more mess. But the thing about bullets is that they travel and get so hot they burn off microbes, so they are less liable to get infected than are arrow wounds. Shoulder gunshot depends on weapon caliber and if anatomical structures are damaged. If the bone is injured or nerves are damaged then it is useless and can't be used for a month or more and gradual recovery.

MEG:  Thanks for verifying, wow. I'll just grit my teeth if I see or read that kind of thing again. Since I'm fairly new to the western genre, I've been reading a lot of books where a character is "gut shot." I did not want to include a gut wound picture, because they are SOO GROSS! This will have to do, LOL. So does that mean - "you're dead?" How bad is being gut-shot? Can anyone survive or walk around with a wound in the gut?

Dr. Keith Souter:  Gut shots were always regarded as potentially fatal, but Dr George Goodfellow became the gunshot expert. I have talked about bullet wounds in my last blog. You had a chance of survival if it was a lower calibre weapon .32 or less, in the lower abdomen (below the umbilicus). Upper abdomen, or high calibre, very little chance. Check out the blog, Dig it Out, Doc - Part 2, Bullets, by clicking the link. Abdominal gunshots again depend on weapon caliber and site plus how much internal damage, depending on its direction - you could hit several vital organs, which could prove fatal. You would not be capable of fighting. Recovery would necessitate surgery and several months of healing. 

MEG:  Got it. Think LOWER when writing gunshot battles. Too much stuff in the upper area, I suppose, with the stomach, liver, spleen, etc...  Here's an encore question -- just because it's one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies: How did good ole Clint survive the hanging in Hang 'Em High? I mean, he did survive and I believed it and figured it was accurate. But why? Just curious as to anatomy.

Dr. Keith Souter:  Hanging produces death either from breaking the neck, such as occurs on a gallows and there is a sudden drop, or from blockage of the airways, obstruction of the venous drainage in the brain by pressure on the jugular veins in the neck, or by obstruction of the arterial flow to the brain by pressure on the carotid arteries. It is also likely that the heart can suddenly stop as the result of vasovagal inhibition. 

In judicial hangings with a drop of six feet there is likely to be fracture dislocation at the level of the 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae or the 3rd and 4th vertebrae. This would tear the cord from the medulla of the brain. 

If someone is hoisted up from the ground, then the cervical fracture and dislocation and sudden death is less likely. The other causes mentioned above are likely eventually. In England in medieval days, the crime of treason was death by being hanged, drawn and quartered. The victim was hanged until he passed out, then he was cut down, revived and then the rest of the execution proceeded. Horrifically grisly, but they developed torture and execution into a fine art.

When people commit suicide by standing on a chair and then toppling it over, they usually do not break their neck (because the drop is not long enough) but will succumb by the other methods mentioned.

In a matter of life or death, people are able to do remarkable things - drag themselves around, stagger to safety. The fight or flight reaction comes into action and you pump up so much adrenaline that you can get extra strength to override the pain matrix. In addition, in battle - from studies in world War II - wounded soldiers often felt remarkably little pain even in the face of quite major trauma. According to the Gate Control theory of Melzack and Wall, put forward in 1965,  it is possible to close one or more of the gates in the transmission of pain from the site up to the brain. 

Meg: Interesting! Odd how that illustration shows the men with their mouths closed and eyes shut, where I would think they'd be gasping for breath. Hm. I'm so grateful to you, Doc, for chatting about such great western stuff! Thanks again. Readers can find Clay More's books here.

Meg Mims is an Award-winning author and artist -- her first published book, DOUBLE CROSSING, won the WWA Spur Award for Best First Novel in 2012. A blend of True Grit and Murder on the Orient Express, it has over 30 five-star reviews on Amazon. The sequel, DOUBLE or NOTHING, is also available and continues the story of heroine Lily Granville and hero Ace Diamond.


  1. Meg, thanks for dragging Dr. Keith back in here to educate us all. Keith, you are a medical encyclopedia on the hoof, and I'm beyond grateful you're so generous with your knowledge!

    More than the wounds themselves -- which, after a while, you learn to just read without examining the severity too closely -- I get hung up on recovery periods. Heroes always seem to be hopping right back in the saddle and taking out after the bad guys, debilitating wound or not. Maybe docs had magical abilities back in the Old West. ;-)

  2. Great topic, you two. This answers a lot of good questions for those of us who use "wounds" a lot in our writing. Thanks for these great questions and answers!

  3. He's a BUCKET of medical secrets, indeedy!! LOL... plus I'd just seen a clip of Clint Eastwood and an Indian in some movie making that palm "blood bond" thing, and thought, "OUCH!" So I figured it might be a good post.

    The shoulder thing came from Hell on Wheels and multiple other books and movies. Oh well. I prefer the flesh wound, myself. Except for the Monty Python one, of course. LOL

  4. Really enjoyed this discussion. Truly, Hollywood takes wounds and life too far, but then, we eat it with a spoon like sugar when our heroes or heroines cowboy up.

    However, having broken my humerus (not funny at all) and having recently sustained an ulnar nerve injury, I can relate to the reality of the situation.

    I can also relate to the cowboy up theory and keep on keeping on when necessary. I think what really is mesmerizing is not that the people lived through the injuries, but that they survived the medical practices back then.

    Never thought about the arrow being designed to stay in. I sort of think being shot with a gun would be preferable!

    Thanks so much for giving us such good information!

  5. I was surprised too, Donna, about the arrow head ... I will keep that in mind if I use that in a story.

  6. Any time the good doctor speaks we all learn so very much. Again a great informational post. Doris

  7. I always cringe at the "shoulder flesh wound" - I had a shoulder injury and it took months to heal! Movie writers (and some novel authors) seem to think the shoulder is some superfluous part of the body without any major structures when actually it's one of the most complicated joints we have.

    Thanks Meg and Keith for another great article!

  8. Always find Keith's comments informative. He and I have worked together on several of the Wolf Creek books, and in the forthcoming Volume 8 I relied heavily on Keith's expertise as to how a character would recover from.... (Not gonna give anything away)

    Thanks, Keith.

    Jim Griffin

  9. Thank you for inviting me, Meg. I enjoyed working with you and thought they were good questions.

    Thanks everyone.


  10. I wonder how that Younger boy lived with so many gunshot wounds. (Searches memory) 11? 21? I've in fact heard of chest wound (lung shot) survival. Gordon Sherriffs wrote a book in which the hero had an arrowhead lodged close to his heart, but eventually, it was enclosed in an envelope of gristle and shoved out of his body (well, shoved far enough so a point stuck out and the doctor could cut the arrowhead out. Sounded completely logical. You know how the body tends to encase foreign matter. Maybe it wasn't a very dirty arrowhead.

  11. The Internet tells me Cole Younger with 11 wounds.

  12. Hi Charlie, the things is that luck and good physical constitution would play a part. Every wound is unique. Cole Younger was fortunate and clearly wasn't hit in a vital part. But of course, many people are not so fortunate and a single wound will do it.

    Dr Goodfellow describes a case of 'a Mexican or Yaqui Indian' admitted to his hospital 1883, wounded with ten buckshot. Three entered the left lung, three the abdomen, while the others were distributed harmlessly about his person (i.e., not potentially fatal parts). He saw him six days after the event and thought he would die. He survived another 24 hours, so he operated on the abdomen and repaired two holes in the intestine. He recovered after 'a long, tedious suppurative process about the large intestine, and was discharged after 5 months. The lung shots he lived with.

    Not only did Dr Goodfellow operate on gunshot wounds, but he performed autopsies on those who died of their wounds. ' 1880, '81, '82, I never failed to investigate the nature of abdominal wounds, and have as often failed to find a vessel of any size cut. When a vessel of any size is injured, death is practically instantaneous.'

    Dr Goodfellow was not just a pioneering surgeon, but he was a pioneering pathologist and he gave us insights into the damage that could occur.


  13. Sorry, I meant to add, that Charlie's excellent novel Road to Rimrock features Dr Goodfellow. It is well worth reading.

    I am also a Goodfellow fan, which folk may have noticed, and I am writing a novel about him for the West of the Big River series. Watch this space (or wherever the space one should watch - is!)


  14. I have Dr. Chase's book (a signed copy, by the way) which is entitled "Dr. Chase's Family Physician, Farrier, Bee-Keeper, and Second Receipt Book" of 1873 which I refer to quite often. The book is still under copyright.

  15. Sounds interesting! I better look that up as a reference. Thanks, Oscar!