Heroic interventions – What medicine can do in the face of the unknown

OK, we’ve just looked at the medical implications of ordinary, everyday, gunfire

But now you want to have monsters spitting super acids, mysterious alien diseases, and exotic nanotechnological poisons.

Because you’ve read my previous articles don’t want to resolve this by having one of your characters mix up a super DNA reversion serum just in time for the credits, using only the contents of their rucksack, the rare Acturian sunflower (that can only be found in the fire swamp), and the power of friendship. I’m pretty sure that this was the plot of roughly half the cartoons ever produced in the 80’s.

So what can a doctor actually do in the face of seriously weird shit? And what are the odds that it will work?


Slash and burn

The patient didn’t need that leg anyway.

Limbs can be cut off, surrounding tissue can be excised, and wounds can be cauterized. Most doctors will be reluctant to resort to this kind of treatment immediately so they need to be made aware of the necessity.

The likelihood of success is going to depend on exactly what is afflicting the character and the speed with which treatment is provided, most likely every second is going to count.

In the event of a battlefield amputation, the next challenge is going to be preventing the character from bleeding to death. This can involve cauterizing tissue and tying off arteries physically (which will be messy). The medic’s chance of pulling this off without killing the patient is obviously going to be much increased if they have experience of trauma surgery, in the military especially, as battlefield surgery gives lots of chances to practice amputation.


Life support

This is involves follows the same basic theory as CPR. You keep the blood flowing and the lungs moving until the patient recovers or you get better help. If you have access to a reasonably modern medical facility this can be done for a substantial amount of time.

This will work in scenarios in which you expect whatever is affecting your character to wear off in time, without doing much additional damage to their tissues in the meantime.

Most nerve poisons can be treated in this way as well as anything else that can cause temporary paralysis (which prevents breathing).

If you want your patient to live you will need to get them to a substantial medical setup very quickly indeed or have a fairly slow onset of symptoms. In sci-fi, a small first-aid device that can sustain a patient by directly stimulating heart and chest muscles isn’t pushing credibility much.


Opposite day

This involves doing the exact opposite of whatever is occurring in the patient.

For example, if the poison is slowing the patient’s heart rate, you give them a drug to speed it up or block the sites within their body that would typically increase heart rate. If the patient’s temperature is rising you might try to cool them down physically.

This is often far from ideal for the patient, but much less so than dying.

Doctors doing this need to be particularly careful to monitor the patient to make sure that whatever they are doing to the patient diminishes at the same rate as whatever they are treating. but failure to do this is an extremely plausible mistake for a rookie medic to make.


Put them to sleep

This could be done to prevent the patient from something that is attacking their central nervous system, or otherwise afflicting their thought processes. For example, inducing a coma is integral to new treatments for rabies.

There are obviously a lot of common science fiction scenarios that could be addressed in this way, including a few that are unlikely to crop up in med school.

It should be noted that rendering a patient safely unconscious, especially for an extended period of time is not a trivial challenge for modern medicine, especially outside of a medical facility and without a trained anesthetist.


Ready with the hayfever tablets

It’s considerably more realistic for a patient to have a serious allergic reaction to an alien venom than they are to actually be poisoned by it.

Inflammatory responses are very rapid in onset and dramatic, while still being reversible, which gives them a lot of narrative potential.

Recognizing this and responding appropriately with anti-inflammatory drugs is well within the ability of a modern medic and the drugs that will be available to him.

Anti-inflammatory medication is also available to the general public, anti-histamine tablets are probably going to be far too slow, but an EpiPen could easily save a characters life.


Putting the patient on ice

If you can’t treat someone right this minute you can try storing them until you can. This is not really plausible with modern medical technology, but could easily be a mainstay of science fiction medicine.

Technological advances that might lead to this might involve drugs that could be used on the patient, preventing their tissue from being damaged by ice crystals forming as they freeze, and such natural anti-freeze does already exist in nature. A future space colonist might even have been genetically engineered to already express them within their body.

This type of intervention also requires a way of cooling the patient throughout their entire body very quickly.


Local remedies

OK, we’re back to the Acturian Sunflower here… sort of…

Whilst it’s not plausible to cure the patient of alien disease just by grinding up a flower and doing twenty minutes of Nobel prize winning medicine, the local life is an excellent place to start looking at if longer term research is involved.

A better scenario to consider here, is our own discovery of penicillin, if you want alien antibiotics then alien molds and microorganisms are a good place to start looking.


Next up in our medical trope series, we are going to take a more in depth look at the likely differences between terrestrial biology and the more alien stuff.

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  1. TechTropes.com » A writer’s guide to genetics — August 21, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

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