LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) – From 1861 until 1865, more than 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War. Despite the loss, the war helped improve physician training and enhance medical technology.
“If we forget the past, we forget to learn from it,” Capt. Thomas Neefe of Company B with the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry said. “The Civil War surgeon did not know anything about sterility. The discovery of bacteria was about another ten years off, and every wound in the Civil War became infected.”
During the Civil War, there was no way to fight infections developed after surgery. “It's one of the reasons that we have established medical colleges and medical societies that we have nowadays. Prior to the Civil War, there were none,” Neefe said.
Civil War medical practices were ugly to say the least. “They would just hold the patient and pretty much use whatever saw and knives they had to perform the amputation,” Gundersen Health System General Surgeon, Dr. Clark Davis, said.
Davis said though field surgery has “evolved”. “The battlefield now, they give (soldiers) morphine to get their pain under control. You wouldn't do an amputation in the field by any means, but apply a tourniquet for blood loss control,” Davis said.
Surgical practices have come a long way, but limb life without blood flow could “still improve”. “If we can come up with ways of prolonging that period of time or rushing the patient to a facility to get the perfusion going again and get their limb perfused again within that six-hour window, they're going to have better luck at limb salvage,” Davis said.
Davis also said the rise of artificial limbs is an “exciting” advance. “Limbs are going to get even better, like robotics or even with some sort of sensation if that'd be possible,” Davis said.
Neefe said if the Civil War would teach people anything, it's to “always strive to get better”.
If interested in learning more about Civil War medical practices and check out the tools and instruments, the presentation will be open to the public at Gundersen Health System on Wednesday and Friday, 2-5 p.m.
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