The woman who swallowed a fish…

Dr Dom Colbert - has spent many years working as a volunteer in famines and disasters all over the world.

Dr Dom Colbert - has spent many years working as a volunteer in famines and disasters all over the world.

It is customary that in parts of southern Nigeria when a man goes fishing his wife remains behind him chatting to other wives in similar positions. When the husband catches a fish he swings his rod over his shoulder, his wife unhooks the fish, bites down on its head sufficiently to kill it, and pops it into their basket.

On February 15 1969 Mrs Grace Joe was engrossed in her chat. She automatically unhooked a fish from her husband’s line, and without thinking, put it into her mouth to chomp it dead. Unfortunately she forgot to chomp. The fish slithered down her throat, and the woman collapsed unable to breathe. Her friends picked her up, gasping for breath, and rushed her to St Luke’s Hospital (commonly known as Anua hospital ),* and without ceremony burst into the operating theatre where a young Irish doctor, Dominick (Dom ) Colbert, was in the middle of a tricky operation to relieve a man suffering from a strangulated hernia.

The woman was plonked on the table beside where Dom was operating. One look at the unfortunate woman, told him he had only minutes to save her life. The crowd stayed in the room. In fact more came running in to see what was going to happen. ‘It seemed that he entire village had come in at this stage’. Everybody shouted excitedly about the fish inside her body, but the evidence spoke for itself.

Getting his assistant nurse to hold Mrs Joe’s head steady, and another to hold her body rigid on the table, Dom depressed her tongue, looked in and saw the tail of the fish far down her throat. It was obvious the fish was still alive…

Exceptional generousity

Dom Colbert’s book, the second in a series,** is remarkable from a number of aspects. Not only is it part of the story of his own life, which he is living as a life of exceptional generosity and giving; but for the men and women he meets on his travels. Many of whom are also unsparing with their talents spent among people caught up in war, and in the ‘wars of disease’ in countries where communications are non existent, and money is scarce.

In St Luke’s hospital he worked with young doctors, two of whom qualified with him from UCD in 1957. All doctors at the hospital, irrespective of whatever expertise they possessed, were expected to do everything, including all kinds of surgery, paediatrics and obstetrics. Dr Ann Ward, ‘a strong, energetic faired-haired woman from Donegal’, did all that was required, but managed to specialise in vesico-vaginal fistula, a particularly nasty consequence of a prolonged labour, resulting in the poor woman being ostracised by her husband and family. Ann became an expert in this matter winning international recognition for her work.

The other was Leonie McSweeney, an outstanding and devoted surgeon. ‘Ann left her mark on the world stage, Leonie on the hearts of those she helped.’

A roar of delight

Back to the unfortunate Mrs Joe. Using an Allis forceps (a surgical instrument with sharp teeth ), Dom gently went down to the fish’s tail and started to pull. Nothing gave but a piece of the fish’s tail. Using a second Allis Dom pushed both forceps down between the fish and the wall of the lady’s gullet until he could grasp a decent chunk of fish. He pulled it carefully upwards rotating as it came. Suddenly the whole fish was out. A great roar of delight went up from the crowd present. ‘It was like the roar you’d hear at a football match when a team scores a goal.’

Within seconds the woman sat bolt upright, but, in a comedy of errors, smacked her head against the the theatre-light cutting herself badly. More excitement from the crowd. But the cut was easily fixed.

In the meantime Dom’s hernia patient slept peacefully on. Once the theatre had cleared, Dom finished the operation in complete peace and quiet. Later, still holding the fish on the end of the Allis, and rather pleased with himself, Dom sought out Leonie McSweeney to show her his catch. She was eating sardines on toast at the time. She was not amused. Later she confessed that she could not eat a sardine on toast for many months.

Next week: Chief Joseph’s scrotum, and one other penis story. I warn readers that Dom Colbert does not differentiate between us simple folk, and the medical profession. He does not spare the details. For those of gentle disposition I suggest just read Tom Kenny’s article next week.

NOTES: *A 280 bed hospital founded and operated by the Medical Missionaries of Mary, 1937. Today it lies in Akwa Igbon State where the concept of Dakkada - a movement to energise people into self-belief - has spread to every area of public life, from health to farming to education. St Luke’s is now a renowned teaching hospital, and internationally respected.

** Dr Dom Colbert, who lives in Galway, was the founder of Medicus Mundi Ireland and co-founder of the Irish Society of Travel Medicine. He has spent many years working as a volunteer in famines and disasters all over the world. He currently lectures and examines in clinical physiology and tropical medicine in NUIG, Dublin, and the Sudan.

He has written extensively on these subjects. His book, MCQs in Travel and Tropical Medicine was published in 2005. For the general reader An Irish Doctor’s Odyssey, and No Tears Left - Biafra to Bosnia, published by Orpen Press this year, and on sale €15, where I am taking the above story, and others in the next few weeks.

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