This post was based on a secretive episode of U.S. history unreported in history books.
Oral cancer has always been devastating, even before it was known as oral cancer.
One reason it’s so pernicious is that the early stages of the disease are painless and often symptom-free. The sobering reality is that only half of people diagnosed with oral cancer live longer than five years.
In the late 19th century newspapers called cancer the “dread disease.” At the time there were no oncology centers, no walk-a-thons to raise money for a cure and no professional athletes who wore pink gear during games to raise public awareness.
On the contrary, people at that time avoided talking about it, including doctors. That is why one doctor examining his VIP patient in 1893 referred to it as “a bad-looking tenant” and recommended removing it immediately.
Public perception had also been shaped just 10 years earlier when several New York newspapers provided a highly publicized and morbid death watch of Civil War hero and former President Ulysses S. Grant as he lost his battle with the dread disease oral cancer.
Understandably the important patient was panicked at the diagnosis, but neither he nor the country could afford to panic in June, 1893. Unemployment was skyrocketing, stocks were in a freefall and even the famous Reading Railroad wasn’t worth $500 of Monopoly® money after filing bankruptcy earlier that year.
Historians say it was the worst economic catastrophe preceding the Great Depression in American history.
It was because of all that economic fear and uncertainty that six medical professionals were covertly recruited and sworn to secrecy before boarding the private yacht Oneida anchored in New York Harbor. Included in the group of six were physicians, surgeons, an anesthesiologist and a dentist. Reportedly some in the group were even unaware of the patient’s identity until Oneida had set sail for the patient’s summer home in Massachusetts.
Shortly after noon the following day the patient took his seat in a large chair bound to the yacht’s mast in the parlor. Weighing a NFL-like 300 pounds before that league even existed, the patient’s girth required the extra support and the chair was serving as an operating table for the procedure about to commence.
Oxygen, nitrous oxide, ether, digitalis, morphine and strychnine (in case of shock) were on hand. Two storage batteries would provide lighting and power the cauterization instruments. None of the ship’s crew was present in the operating area other than the ship’s steward.
The patient’s doctors were concerned about stroke, and there was a 15% chance in those days that the procedure they were about to perform could result in death.
During the 90-minute operation the doctors removed the tumor, five teeth beginning with the first bicuspid to just beyond the last molar, and much of the patient’s upper left palate and jawbone. Remarkably, the entire operation took place within the patient’s mouth, including extraction of the tumor.
“The large cavity was packed with gauze to arrest the subsequent moderate oozing of blood,” wrote W.W. Kean, one of the attending physicians, years later. “With the packing in the cavity his speech was labored but intelligible, without the packing it was wholly unintelligible, resembling the worst imaginable case of cleft palate. Had this not been so admirably remedied by Doctor (Kasson C.) Gibson, secrecy later would have been out of the question.”
Keen later credited the ability of the team to do the procedure without external incision to a cheek retractor he’d brought back from Paris in 1866. This was important so as not to reveal the secrecy that all involved had sworn to keep.
Two days after the operation the patient was out of bed and two days after that he was dropped off at his summer home on Cape Cod. Two weeks later in mid-July the VIP was fitted with an artificial jaw of vulcanized rubber to prevent the cheek from collapsing and support it in its natural position.
The customized plate fit comfortably enough that when the VIP spoke publicly afterwards no one noticed any change to his speaking voice. The public was merely told that he had had some dental work done for a toothache while vacationing but had recovered nicely.
In 1975 the famous patient’s tissue that had been removed in secret was reexamined and determined to be a type of carcinoma that is usually cured by surgical excision. In short, the attending doctors had made the right diagnosis and successfully performed the recommended procedure – all on a moving boat and in considerably less time than similar procedures today.
This gentleman went on to serve a successful second term as president of the United States, and remains the only President to have served two non-consecutive terms: 1885-1889, and 1893-1897.
President Grover Cleveland lived another 16 years before passing away from heart failure at the age of 71 in 1908. News of the President’s secret surgery in 1893 was not publicly acknowledged until 24 years later, in 1917.
We have no need for such secrets here! All of our dental plans are transparent and affordable!
The original version of this post was published at Dental Insurance Store July 15, 2014.
Sources: healthmedialab.com, neatorama,com, pbs.org, doctorzebra.com, oralcancerfoundation.org
Photo source: neatorama.com
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This original version of this post was published at Dental Insurance Store on July 15, 2014
Copyright 2017, Dean A. George©