How Medicine Works (According to the Movies)


Okay, say what you want, but at least he’s a real doctor and in the movies.

As someone with family members in the medical field and as well being related to sports enthusiasts, I tend to know a little bit about medical workings more than I care to know. Not to mention, I know many people who use their health as a conversation piece which is seen as a safe but boring topic. For instance, if I want to know whether someone has health problems, I just want the person to cut to the chase and tell me in the simplest way possible. I don’t want jargon, full details, or anything disgusting or gross. However, as with the concept of guns, Hollywood’s take on medicine and health also doesn’t nearly stack up with reality and here I’ll compile a list why that is. Of course, I won’t list examples from fantasy and science fiction since most of their medicine either comes from the future or comprises of magic. And I won’t list details from horror movies either since there are no such thing as demon possession or vampirism.

1. You could survive tar and feathering without any permanent scars from the incident. (This is probably the most unrealistic thing in Little Big Man in which the townspeople tar and feather Dustin Hoffman. Still, his character survives the incident for 100 years, isn’t seen seeking any medical care, nor does he even have any scarring from the whole thing. In real life, Hoffman’s character wouldn’t have been so lucky. Being tarred and feathered was never a good or easy-to-overcome thing. Physical damage inflicted from the tar varied wildly depending on temperature. If relatively cool, the tar would cause mild irritations to the skin and the worst you could hope for was spending hours of scrubbing to clean off the skin {and remember this would mean on your entire body since you’d be forcibly stripped naked before they put the tar on you}. Sometimes removal would mean agitating the burns and ripping out hair {making a body wax seem like a picnic}. Near boiling {which would be more likely}, the tar could cause life-threatening burns {and will surely leave permanent scars}. And if the tar wasn’t the worst of it, you can suffer fairly serious injuries from being forced to straddle the rail coming from a splintery wooden fence. Still, though tarring and feathering is usually played comically in westerns, what it did to those subject to this treatment is nothing to be laughed at. I mean, everyone would remember what was done to you.)

2. No matter how badly an action hero is injured, he will never end up with permanent and visible scars. (Whereas a real life football player with milder injuries could possibly be out for the rest of the season.)

3. A young woman with terminal illness will grow more beautiful as death approaches. (I’m sorry but dying from a terminal illness doesn’t work that way. I mean just surviving from a near-fatal illness doesn’t really do much for you in the looks department. At best, you’ll probably look like a survivor from a Nazi concentration camp, may need to rely on pain killers, and will soon lose your ability to perform the most basic functions like swallowing. You may even be in a coma on life support surrounded by family members wanting to pull the plug. And if you’re suffering from a fatal illness before the 20th century, well, let’s not go there.)

4. Unprotected sex is perfectly safe and won’t lead to pregnancy as long as the encounter has little to do with the plot. (Seriously, with the kind of sexual lifestyle James Bond has, he’s got to have at least a paternity suit or an STD by now. Of course, he may be using protection off-screen or has had a vasectomy but there’s no way of knowing. Even so, contraceptives aren’t 100% effective. Still, Kirk and Indy each have at least one known child, but seem STD clean otherwise. Then again, Kirk is from the future so this doesn’t apply to him.)

5. Albinos have red eyes and are perfectly capable to shoot at a far distance and drive at night. (Sorry, Dan Brown, but most albinos have blue or slate gray eyes which may appear red tinged. Not to mention, most albinos have very poor vision and are often legally blind. In fact, vision impairment is the main aspect of the diagnostic criteria for albinism. So there’s probably no such thing as an albino assassin.)

6. People who suffer from a constant cough will soon die from the disease that causes it with a short period of time. (Kind of depends on the disease and the time period. Constant coughing isn’t really a big medical issue unless if leads to spitting out blood most of the time. Other than that the most serious diseases I can think of involving this symptom would be TB, whooping cough, or pneumonia. Still, if you have a coughing fit and seem perfectly healthy, you probably have the common cold, the flu, or bronchitis. As with TB sufferers in the 19th century, it may kill you but you’ll survive for a number of years, if it does. If it kills you much quicker, you probably had either pneumonia or lung cancer {and for much of the 19th century, all serious lung diseases were diagnosed as tuberculosis so as how many people actually died from TB is anyone’s guess though it was incurable and contagious}.)

7. An antidote or vaccine will instantly cure a disease with no ill effects. (Actually a vaccine isn’t going to help you fight an illness if you already have it most of the time. A vaccine is a preventive measure used to train your immune system to fight a certain pathogen so if the real thing comes along, they’ll be able squelch it before it gets the chance to infect. Of course, the rabies vaccine may be an exception. As with antidotes, though they may reverse some effects of a poison but not all. And they may not save your life. Nevertheless, they need to be taken as early as possible or before the body sustains so much damage that death is inevitable. Also, tends to be rather expensive. Sometimes there may not even be an antidote if you have a certain kind of poison in your system.)

8. Radiation exposure can give you superpowers. (What it actually gives you are radiation sickness, radiation poisoning, possible congenital mutations to pass to your kids {that may lead to birth defects}, and/or cancer. Many people who worked at nuclear facilities have serious health issues and don’t live too long. Of course, super powerology isn’t based on actual science but you get the idea radiation exposure is no fun at all.)

9. Alternative medicine and herbal remedies can help you just as much as traditional medicine could. (Well, not exactly. Of course, there are some medicinal herbs but they don’t always work 100% of the time. Also, they can carry their share of side-effects just like any other drugs sometimes serious or fatal. Still, you might want to consult your doctor on this one. And if you have no idea of what herb it is or what it does to you, don’t consume it.)

10. Being attacked in the nuts or castration can result in a dramatic voice change from tenor to soprano in males. (Actually while a groin injury can be very painful in men and boys, it will not result in a dramatic voice change, though it might impair reproductive capabilities. As with castration, it depends on the age of the man but it doesn’t change a guy’s voice. Talk to any war veteran who’s had his junk shot off in battle. Chances are they sound as much the same as before. Besides, most of your castrati opera singers during the 17th-18th centuries were castrated before puberty in order to retain their voices. Vocal chords just don’t shrink, boys, so you don’t have to worry about that.)

11. Potassium cyanide kills in seconds. (It takes effect after a few minutes and can be a messy affair involving strong seizures before it kills you through massive apnea and cardiac failure.)

12. Good drugs have no side-effects. (All medicines do, some worse than others. For God’s sake, have you’ve ever seen any pharmaceutical ads? Some of those side-effects just make me not want to take the drug.)

13. All drugs and poisons take effect upon consumption. (It usually takes time for the effect to be felt due to having to travel through the body. Also, matter of of how the drug is taken is a factor. Still, if you take something which doesn’t take effect right away, don’t take another dose whatsoever.)

14. Smoking marijuana can cause you to go into a blind killer rage. (Obviously, even Hollywood doesn’t believe this Reefer Madness nonsense but it probably won’t turn you into a peace loving hippie either. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

15. It’s easy to retain good physical shape regardless of diet and exercise. (Sure they may be in great physical shape but they’re actors with nutritionists and personal trainers. Thus, diet and exercise are very much a factor.)

16. Truth serum can make someone incapable of lying and will always give you complete and accurate information. (Sure it may cause hallucinations, never to shut up, or reduced inhibitions but it won’t make anyone less capable of lying. Using truth serum is a human and civil rights issue and any statements obtained in this manner are inadmissible in court. Thus, they’re more useless than lie detectors.)

17. A person can be revived after a few minutes of CPR and will later have a full recovery. (CPR rarely results in a full recovery since it’s performed when a person has less than a 10% chance of recovery at all. Also, it doesn’t take a few minutes and you shouldn’t give up until either the person starts breathing on their own or when the EMTs arrive. Not to mention, it’s expected for the ribs to break during CPR, which is never seen in film. The victim can also throw up and mouth-to-mouth isn’t even recommended.Still, you might want to call 911 first since CPR has a 2% survival rate on its own.)

18. If CPR fails, then it’s perfectly fine to start striking a patient in the chest in order to restart his or her heart. (It’s called a precordial thump and should be delivered by an expert in a life-threatening rhythm and only attempted once. Also, it should precede CPR and only works for a very short time period {but not in every attempt}.)

19. A proficient swimmer can save a person from drowning by jumping into the water or throwing the victim a buoy. (Only try to save a person from drowning if and only if there are no professional lifeguards around. Not to mention, lifeguards are instructed never to jump into the water or throw the buoy to the victim {but past them}, especially if that person has a possible spinal injury.)

20. When someone has a nosebleed, always put their head back. (You actually risk making them choke or puke from swallowing their own blood. Better to make them lie down if possible {well, it works form me whenever I had nosebleeds as a kid}.)

21. The first thing to do when someone has a foreign object in their bodies is try to remove it as soon as possible. (The object is serving as a plug on the wound and pulling it could kills someone in minutes. Best it should be removed by professionals where infections can be fought off by antibiotics. Also, some people live with bullets for years without any problems like Andrew Jackson.)

22. When someone has hypothermia, it’s best to throw them in hot water. (This would cause a person’s core temperature to shoot up, inviting the colder fluid and extremities in making the person even colder or worse, mess up their heart. Still, a person suffering hypothermia should get warmed up through a warm bath and only if they can get in unassisted. A person suffering from more severe hypothermia should be rushed to the hospital.)

23. Using a an article of clothing as a makeshift tourniquet for a gunshot wound can help stop the bleeding. (This is a very bad idea since the clothing will probably stick to the drying blood and cause other problems when real help arrives. If left on a limb too long can result in it becoming necrotic and falling off. Only should be done if pressure around the wound isn’t working.)

24. Giving birth only takes a few minutes with the baby looking dry and clean as well as little to no mess. Not to mention, the mother is perfectly fine. (Pregnant women can be in labor for hours as well as so exhausting that the mother is either drenched in sweat and red in the face due to exertion as well as passed out due to the pain or pain medicine. Also, it’s a very messy affair complete with amniotic fluids, blood, fecal matter, tearing the placenta, and other bits and fluids. Not to mention, the babies come out covered in bodily fluids and have noticeably deformed heads. Of course, since I have a lot younger cousins, I can say that a cleaned up two day old baby looks much cuter than many other newborn animals. Most of the “newborns” you see on film are usually about 3 months old mostly due to younger babies being more susceptible infections.)

25. You should always try to remove the bullet when someone is shot as well as requires simple tools and little expertise. (Pulling a bullet out is the last thing you want to do for a shooting victim. Even surgeons frequently leave them in while repairing the damage. Still, bullets are mostly harmless when they stop moving and it’s best to remove them after the immediate trauma has already healed. Of course, there are exceptions in which a bullet has a chance to explode or has a part of clothing in the wound which could cause infection.)

26. Anyone can perform a tracheotomy. (No one without an MD should ever attempt this.)

27. Antibiotics can instantly cure any kind of illness. (They are only effective against those caused by bacteria and only if that particular strain is sensitive to that prescribed antibiotic. Still, there are drugs that fight viruses, parasites, and fungus.)

28. A defibrillator will restart a patient’s heart from cardiac arrest, usually when you try the second time. (While it will help improve survival ratios for cardiac arrests, there’s a specific time window in which shock must be applied. If not applied within 4 minutes of onset, odds of successful conversion drop drastically. Also, odds of successful conversion go down the more shock a patient requires. Not to mention, a defibrillator doesn’t restart the heart but stops a dysfunctional heart rhythm in hope that heart’s mechanisms can restore an effective rhythm. A first responder will do this alongside CPR. Modern defibrillators are rubbed together to spread a conductive gel on them, not building up a charge. They also have one-use adhesive pads and don’t make that KACUNK! noise like older models did. And they don’t make the patient jump several inches off the floor.)

29. In case a defibrillator is absent, hooking up a person to a main power source will give the same results. (No it won’t! This is a horrible idea! Doing this is a good way to induce the conditions that need defibrillation so don’t try this. However, if you wish the afflicted person dead anyway, then I’m sure this technique will give them a great sendoff to the choir invisible.)

30. Everyone knows their blood type. (Only those who give blood do and  it’s not a big population. Heck, I don’t even know my own blood type.)

31. Anyone experiencing a fatal illness will exhibit mild symptoms at first only to have the disease get progressively worse after the diagnosis. (Usually by the time one is diagnosed with a fatal disease, the symptoms have progressed enough to be serious. Most people usually try to wait out mild and nondescript symptoms.)

32. Nothing wrong can come from yanking the I.V. once you wake up from a coma. (Yanking the I.V. will put the wound at risk for infection.)

33. If your friend is poisoned by a snake bite, you should always suck out the venom from the puncture wounds. (Don’t ever do this! For one, sucking could cause further infection on the wound, transfer the risk of poison from the victim to yourself, and will only make the wound swell which require another incision increasing bleeding (raising everyone’s risk of infection), an may result in the poison entering the bloodstream faster. Also, people survive the vast majority of venomous snake bites even without treatment. Still, if someone is bitten by a venomous snake bite just try to keep the person calm and prevent them from moving and arrange for them to be transported to a hospital. Sucking the poison can get you both killed on this one.)

34. Sedation only takes a few seconds to knock you out. (It depends on the type of sedation drug which can usually take from a few seconds to a few minutes or even several hours. Dosage is also a factor.)

35. You can knock out a person with a simple blow to a head. (It’s the least reliable way to make someone unconscious. Yet, if you successfully do knock someone out with a blow to the head, you might be in trouble. A blow to the head that causes unconsciousness is also severe enough to cause a skull fracture, concussion, intracranial bleeding, permanent cognitive impairment, amnesia, blindness, personality, change, and even death. Usually lasts for a few seconds but unconsciousness lasting for than a minute usually indicates brain damage which will take months and not years to recover and the injured person will likely have permanent impairment. And if a blow to the head doesn’t make the person unconscious, it will certainly make them very, very angry. Don’t do this! Please remember this is why professional sports has a major issue with head injuries and why people should wear helmets.)

36. You can travel an exotic location, eat the food, drink the water, and not have to spend a long time in the bathroom. (Depends on where you travel. This might apply to Europe and other developed nations, but if you’re in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or some other Second or Third World dump, chances are that trying the local cuisine and drinking from the local water supply might result in spending countless hours of your trip on the toilet.)

37. Spending considerable time near the equator or other exotic locations won’t result in you spending some time in bed with a tropical disease. (Seriously, I have no idea why Indiana Jones doesn’t come down with anything. I mean he’s an archaeologist living in the 1930s so it’s not like he’s went through inoculations prior to every trip. For God’s sake, he has to have least gotten a case of malaria from a mosquito bite.)

38. All epileptics suffer from violent convulsions when having a seizure. (There are many different types of seizures that have symptoms ranging from losing consciousness and staring into space for a few seconds, losing control of a limb while maintaining consciousness, to full-blow writhing at the ground, and everything in between.)

39. Seizures are set off by flashing images. (Actually this is called photosensitive epilepsy which consist of 10% of all epileptic cases).

40. All heart attacks start with a shooting, radiating pain later resulting the person to stagger in pain while clutching his chest with face turning bright red before dropping like a stone to the floor unconscious and probably dead. (Heart attacks vary in nature which can range from this to ones you don’t realize you’ve had until an ECG years later discovers the damage left behind. Symptoms can range from fainting, puking, and collapse while a massive heart attack can make the sufferer think he’s about to have a bout with diarrhea, one reason why so many die on the toilet.)

2 responses to “How Medicine Works (According to the Movies)

  1. I used to watch cop shows and westerns in the 1960s and 1970s- they would get shot- and not bleed! Then, they would get hit on the head and knocked out for a while- with no ill effects afterward.
    Now, movies sometimes have too much blood, spurting everywhere, in graphic detail!

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