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Jeff Polman Headshot

Take My Leg, Please!

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Having just endured six days in a hospital, I've been moved to write something about how far our medical profession has advanced since the bygone days. Luckily the recent discovery of a long-buried diary of Confederate General John Bell Hood illuminates this for us. Having survived an arm wound battling the Union army at Gettysburg in 1863, Bell took a bullet in his leg months later at the Battle of Chickamauga, and was rushed to a hospital in Richmond to have his limb amputated. Hood's diary is not in the best condition and marred with ink stains, so I cannot vouch for the absolute authenticity of the following account, but it gives a valuable glimpse at the system that was known back then as "Jeffersoncare."

Sep. 23, 1863, 6:15 pm -- Arrived at Richmond Hospital. Met by officious medical underling, and I demanded he saw off my right leg at the knee. "Fine," he said, "May I see your admittance forms and make a copy of your insurance card, please?" I explain that I have neither. And that I am bleeding uncontrollably on his floor.

"Hmm...Can you tell me who authorized the surgery then?"

"The Confederate Army, you nabob!"

"Very well. Take these forms to Admittance and fill them out there."

6:45 pm -- Admittance is a large waiting chamber, filled with groaning and wailing soldiers with wounds as ghastly as mine. Two more medical lackeys visit me at my stool and take my forms, their eyes darting over the fevered scrawls.

"Major...Hood? I'm Dr. Bishop and this is Dr. LaRue. We'll be your anti-thesiologists for the procedure. When did you last eat?"

"Biscuits and sloosh at nine this morning. Can we speed this along, damn it??"

"We offer biting ropes made from either hemp fiber or horsehair. Do you have a preference?"


"Good! Then just sign this form here, and take it to pre-sawing."

7:20 pm -- Was given my own gurney in pre-sawing. Dr. Thornton, the resident bladeologist, was there to advise me on the type of blade to be used. It was apparent this world of bureaucratic doggerel might never end...

"We'll be using a Kaiser blade on you today, General Hood. Mm-hmm. Some people call it a sling blade, but I call it a Kaiser blade. Would that be okay with you?"

"YESSS!!!" I scream, but he was not the surgeon to even wield the implement. I was forced to wait on my gurney another full hour until an operating room was made available to me, but not before a revolving wheel of blood collectors, post-sawing consultants and nutrient specialists came in, all pausing to check the identification stripe they had clamped on my wrist so they knew who they were speaking to.

9:28 pm -- After my 20-cent "co-payment" is extracted, I bite down on my hemp rope, sawing specialist Dr. Maynard lets loose with his Kaiser blade, and the deed is finally done. All I need now is to get back to my men down in Chickamauga, where I can lead them from a safe distance.

"Yes, General," says Lorilee, my assistant registered night shift nurse, "But you will need to use these three prescribed anti-sawing infection ointments for two weeks, and pass a bowel movement before we can let you go."

"Very well! I will start now! Find me a bucket!"

"O-kay...But while our bucketologist is doing that, maybe we can take care of your hospital bill. The Confederate Army is refusing to pay for 80 percent of the procedure, due to a pre-existing maiming condition."

I let out a mournful sigh. A cannonball in my face at Antietam would have been preferable to this...