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Don’t Try This at Home: A Self-Appendectomy in Telluride

Health care is a hot topic in today’s national news, but it’s always been a popular subject in ski towns. It doesn’t take much to get a room full of skiers and snowboarders to talk about their injuries and subsequent treatments. Broken bones, dislocated shoulders and torn knee ligaments, in particular, are classic afflictions. Yet historically, Telluride’s residents have suffered far worse than torn MCLs and or fractured femurs.

In 1918, for example, the Spanish Flu epidemic struck, killing one in 10 Telluriders over the course of two months. A rudimentary sewage and sanitation system encouraged outbreaks of diphtheria, cholera, scarlet fever and tuberculosis. And miners faced serious hazards at work that ranged from avalanches to collapsed mine shafts. Telluride’s Lone Tree Cemetery is a testament to the difficulties of life here at the turn of the century.

The building in which the Telluride Historical Museum now operates was originally the town’s hospital. Hence, a popular exhibit is called “Hardships and Healthcare.” There’s an evacuation basket made from rattan that was used to haul sick and injured workers to town from the mines (thus the term "basket case"), rows of medicine bottles that contain everything from ether to aspirin, and grim surgical tools that recall the inventions of Jeremy Iron’s character in the 1988 film Dead Ringers.

One of my favorite Telluride medical tales is about George Balderston, a doctor who removed his own appendix in 1949. Newspapers at the time quote his reasoning for the procedure as “I wanted to get a first-hand reaction of a patient to local anesthesia. And I wanted to study post-operative effects.” Local lore, however, embellishes the story, citing that Balderston was accused of being a “butcher” by a former patient in a saloon and felt so offended that he went under his own knife to prove the accuser wrong. According to the historical accounts, he used no mirrors; the procedure required only 45 minutes; and he was back at work after two days.

These last details are noteworthy because other reported self-appendectomies involved mirrors, required a couple of hours to complete and included a far longer recovery (bear in mind that the incision during those days was far larger than today’s “keyhole” surgery). Balderston’s operation is said to be the first and only of its kind in Colorado.

I’m a curious person by nature, but I can’t imagine ever feeling compelled to remove my own appendix—even if I had the tools and know-how. I recall a toothache that once aggravated me enough to consider pliers tempting, but there’s no indication that Balderston was suffering from serious pain or acute symptoms. So he cut a hole in his stomach for the sake of gathering first-hand information about how it felt? Or, worse, to disprove a possible accusation made in a bar? I’m not sure whether to admire the man’s curiosity or abhor his hubris.

Then again, perhaps hubris is exactly what Telluride citizens needed to survive back then. Watching one in ten neighbors die from a highly contagious flu would be desperate. Without hubris, suffering frontier conditions and remaining optimistic would have been tough. Curiosity, too, was fundamental. What else would drive a man deep into a dark mine? Oh yes, hope—hope of making a fortune. Maybe hubris and curiosity are rooted inside us somewhere near hope. No doubt Balderston was filled with hope when his scalpel first touched his own skin. And I’ve definitely felt those sentiments intermingle before my ski tips have descended into a steep backcountry chute—hubris, curiosity and the hope that I don’t test the health care system.

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