Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Daring Ortho Patient on The Flying Trapeze


"Get that needle outta my leg or that doc on  my right with
the glasses gets clobbered by a flying trapeze!"

  Modern hospitals have become disquieting places without the time worn cues to orient folks to the  type of services available on a particular ward unit.  The ortho wards look naked without beds fully encased by unwieldy traction frames and their sundry attachments. 

Respiratory floors were easy to spot with their huge "U" tanks of oxygen wheeled about by tired looking nurses and orderlies. Now everything looks the same and  the appointments are more expensive than can be easily afforded by the common man.

Fancy in the wall pipes did away with the huge oxygen tanks scattered wily nily about the ward, but lack of orthopedic framework and their ever present trapeze was a move in the wrong direction. Living (if you could call it that) tethered to weighty  traction inside the confines of  an orthopedic bed was an unpleasant patient  experience to say the least,  while outside, in the untethered world, the healthy danced the tune of their small delights. In todays vernacular, orthopedic traction and it's accompanying long term confinement was a huge patient dissatisfier.

The underbelly of the miserable world subsisting below the  ortho trapeze always reminded me of a steaming jungle  teeming with rank smells that bubbled with hot gasses vented from inside an overheated, sweat infused hospital mattress. Patients confined in nasty conditions like this clamored for attention and soon learned a trapeze was better than a call bell for eliciting attention from nursing staff.

It's a sad truth,  most of our nursing forebears had seen way too much suffering to be easily moved by a patient's plight. Patients strung up in restricting traction soon learned that like the porcupine's belly, the weak spot for just about any hardened nurse was a struggling patient.

 So struggle they did. The key to attracting a friendly nurse to the bedside was timing, as the target nurse passed by the always open door, the hapless patient wildly swung by one extremity from the dangling trapeze as if he were about to crash back down to the stench laden  mattress in a fatigue induced heap.   Who in the world could turn their back on a struggling patient?  The "helpless dangler, about to crash gambit," worked on just about every nurse. It was a sure fire way to garner some attention, if even, for a brief moment.     

Wily traction bound patients had the luxury of lots of time on their bedridden hands to come up with more sinister uses for a trapeze. It didn't take much ingenious thought to weaponize an overhead trapeze. Aside from a direct assault by swinging the trapeze at a victims cranium like the poor soul in the illustration above, the pull and shriek strategem was equally painful, but more subtle. 

Nurses tending to orthopedic patients frequently had to work below the dangling trapeze when performing painful procedures like cleaning indwelling  traction pins  with hydrogen peroxide  pins or administering stinging  injections. The ortho patient's  golden hour of returning the painful favor to the nurse was when her cap and/or hair brushed against the chain securing the trapeze bar. A quick downward thrust on the horizontal trapeze would lock the nurse's hair in the trapeze suspension chain. The end result was a hair pulling event upon the nurse's pained departure. I think this is one of the reasons that orthopedic nurses were the pioneers when it came to abandoning the traditional nursing cap. A clump of scalp hair suspended from a trapeze bar was a chilling sight.

Most everything encountered in the nursing world has a yin/yang aspect to it, and trapezes were no different. Trapezes could do good things as well as cause trouble. Orthopedic patients were ordered to wear TED compression hose at all times as a clot prevention measure. Most all life threatening clots formed in deep veins and compression hose only worked on superficial vessels. I could never figure out how such an ineffective intervention could gain widespread use, but that's fodder for a future post.

Patients soon discovered the trapeze was an ideal suspension device for drying newly laundered hose. Just hang the TED hose over the horizontal bar and PRESTO they dried in nothing flat in the steamy hospital environment. Enterprising patients also discovered the trapeze was a great place to suspend photos of loved ones. Having a treasured family member in line of sight worked wonders for patient morale.

The pendulum like back and forth movement of a trapeze was also great for inducing a calming effect. The rhythmic swing tended to induce a peaceful hypnotic sort of state that helped counteract some of the misery induced by immobility.

I recall one patient who discovered a truly novel use for a trapeze. The ends of a trapeze were open and the void made a convenient place to ramrod cigarette butts. Old hospitals were chock full of smokers on both sides of the bedside, patients used the trapeze ends for an ash tray and nurses were known to use the traction support holes in the footboard for cigarette disposal. 

Head Nurse Annie confronted one of the nurses about finding KOOL cigarette butts in the traction receptacle and was countered with a good defensive point, "But I smoke Winstons," the wizened nurse replied.


  1. I remember those contraptions. I broke my leg in the 70's at 10 and was in traction for a little over 2 months with 1 leg strung up in the air with weights on the end of rope to keep it tight I guess. That hospital stay traumatized the crap out of me. And yea, some of those nurses could ignore screaming like no big deal. You were at their mercy. I remember 1 time I had to poop and was calling for a long time for someone to come. Pushing the buzzer. Nada. Then a nurse answers the phone at the desk right outside my door and I'm screaming for her. She hangs up that phone and just calmly walks away down the hall. I couldn't hold it anymore. When someone finally shows up they give me the riot act. Then tells me that they are bringing a new patient in for the bed next to me, a teenage girl, and maybe she should just leave me there like that as a lesson. I explained about the nurse on the phone. Blank stare like "right kid". Most of the nurses were super compassionate, but a few, ugh... I wish I knew some of those tricks with the trapeze bar. LOL...

  2. The "good old days" were definitely not so great when it came to orthopedics. We were required to have 3,000 hours of "service" AKA as back breaking work to graduate from nursing diploma school and most of mine was pent on the ortho ward because of my lifting skills. What a miserable place for patients, so hot in the summer and the only patient comfort measure I could come up with was artfully bending wire coat hangers to thread down those heavy casts to scratch a previously unreachable itch.

    Thankfully open reductions have done away with the extended bed rest and long term immobility induced by gruesome traction apparatus. If you want to see to see some orthopedic miracles check out orthopedic_trauma on Instagram. His work is superb!

    Thanks so much for taking time to leave a comment. You made my day and sparked an idea for a post about orthopedic or fracture bedpans. They were among the most useless pieces of medical equipment (if you could call it that) ever designed. There was absolutely no clearance for poop to properly drop into the thing as it was being extruded so it was ram rodded and plastered up against the poor patients skin which greatly exacerbated clean up. It was so crude that it was often kinder to just tell the patient to let it go on a plain old blue pad sans the fracture pan. What a sad state of affairs.

    Thanks again for commenting on my foolishness and I'm so glad you recovered despite the trauma inflicted.

  3. I was fascinated by your blog post on the daring ortho patient! It's incredible how bravery and modern healthcare intersect. Speaking of which, if anyone needs top-notch care, our Ortho Hospital In Chrompet provides exceptional services. Keep up the inspiring work!