Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hospital Gangrene

By Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

Hospital gangrene was a severe streptococcal wound infection that proved fatal to many soldiers, both North and South, during the Civil War. Because it was much more serious than other types of gangrene and developed only in large hospitals in major cities where many kinds of infections were treated, researchers suggest that it may have resulted from a combination of several types of bacteria.

Hospital gangrene was extremely contagious and fast moving. A soldier with a healthy wound could contract the disease and be dead in several days. The edges of the infected wound turned a grayish color and the surrounding tissue was destroyed rapidly, as much as an inch per hour in some severe cases. The gangrene caused blood clotting in the small arteries leading to the tissue, causing the tissue to die and drop off, leaving gaping wounds.

The first step in caring for a hospital gangrene patient was to move him to a tent or separate building to prevent the further spread of gangrene. Here he and fellow sufferers were provided with their own sponges, towels, and sheets, which were frequently washed. Dressings and bandages were often reused elsewhere but not in the gangrene ward.

In cases where gangrene affected a limb, doctors might amputate to prevent the spread of the disease. Where gangrene infected a previous amputation, doctors might amputate again further up the stump. Despite all medical efforts, about 46 percent of hospital gangrene patients died. Many of the survivors had permanent deformity in the affected area.

Excerpted from: The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine


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