Category Archives: Trauma

Q and A: What Happens If My character Is Shot in the Abdomen With a Crossbow?

Q: My question is if a female victim, age 17-18, had a penetrating wound to the far left side of the abdomen just below the ribs, extending 2-3 inches max into the body, what organs if any would be hit and would there be any internal bleeding (if so what major arteries/veins)? The weapon is a barbed crossbow bolt that prevents manual removal. And for the internal bleeding would cauterization be possible without lasting effects? Also, what would be the estimated recovery time for this injury (victim able to walk without assistance)?

Rachel from TN


A: There are many possibilities and in fact there are hundreds of possible outcomes here. In the left upper quadrant of the abdomen the most likely structures that would be impacted would be the spleen, the pancreas, and the bowel. It is possible that an object that only embedded two or 3 inches into the body would not strike any organs but would rather be more or less a flesh wound. In this case she would be fine and able to do anything with some pain in the area of course. The only real danger here would be an infection in the wound but this would take many days to develop and many more days to become a true medical problem.

On the other hand the bolt could penetrate into the abdomen and this would be much more painful and there could be some bleeding within the abdomen which would cause a more or less diffuse pain throughout the abdomen which would be worse with movement, running, coughing, and almost any other activity. This pain would be sharp rather than a dull ache. Once again her life would not be in danger unless a secondary infection followed and she should be able to do most things though again with considerable discomfort.

If the spleen were punctured, they would be a great deal of internal bleeding and it could even be enough to cause her to slip into shock and die. Or she could simply lose a great deal of blood can be very weak and short of breath with

any activity but survived. Here the bleeding could stop as the wound in the spleen clotted and she could recover without any major intervention. Again if no infection followed.

If she punctured a pancreas then the pancreatic digestive juices would be released in the abdomen and cause what we call peritonitis – the inflammation of the lining of the abdomen. This would be extremely painful with almost any movement are activity and this discomfort would be spread throughout the abdomen. Here a secondary infection is

very high. Would she be able to do most things? Probably but this would be even more painful than the injuries described above.

If the bolt penetrated a bowel then the leakage of bowel contents in the abdomen would cause an infected peritonitis. This would be extremely painful and deadly without fairly quick surgical intervention. The bowel contents are loaded with nasty bacteria and once they entered the abdominal cavity they would begin to grow and inflame the peritoneum,

causing a severe infectious peritonitis. Here the pain would be worse but she could still move around and do things if she were tough. Within a couple of days the infection would be severe and she would have high fevers, chills, severe abdominal pain, and would ultimately slip in the shock and die from what we call septicemia – an infection in the bloodstream.

Cautery is simply the burning of the tissues and really has no place here as it causes more damage than help. The reason is that with a bolt such as this weapon there would be very little external bleeding in the cautery he could only be used to control that. It could do nothing for the internal bleeding. To control any external bleeding simply applying pressure with a towel, the piece of clothing, wadded up paper, or anything she had handy would stop the external bleeding.


Posted by on October 20, 2015 in Cause & Manner of Death, Q&A, Trauma


Why Did Two girls Want to Kill For Slender Man?

Slender Man copy

I previously posted about the Slender Man hoax and how it went viral on the internet and led to the attempted murder of a young girl by two of her friends. The post centered around a Psychology Today article titled “Murder By Meme: Slender Man and the Wakefield Anti-Vax Hoax” by Travis Langley, PhD. An interesting article.

Thankfully, Bella, the victim of the murder attempt, survived the attack but now the Slender Man case is moving along. Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, the two young girls charged with the crime, have apparently plead not guilty so a trial will likely be forthcoming. It will be an interesting ride as there are so many aspects to this story that just make you shake your head.

More details of the bizarre, yet sad, case are revealed in an article in New York Magazine by Lisa Miller. Chilling and then some.


Q and A: Can a Crochet Hook Be Used For Murder?

Q: I’m wanting the victim in my next mystery novel to be murdered with a crochet hook. The attacker and victim would be facing each other. The hook would be grabbed off a table and could be either hook end out the thumb side of the hand or out the pinky side of the hand (depending on what you would determine to be the easiest for delivering a fatal blow). It is an impulsive act. The victim is a 5ft. 11in., 157lb. female. Murderer is a 6ft. 1in., 298lb. male. He is a chef.

What would be the most likely spots for inflicting a fatal wound? Would the hook need to be removed (the victim bleeds out)? Can the hook be left in and the wound still fatal?

The hook is a size F 3.75mm crochet hook made of Brazilian bloodwood by the Furls Fiberarts company. I know the different woods they use have different strengths as some do not come in the smaller diameter sizes. (For example: the olivewood hooks start at 4.00mm while the blackwood starts at 3.25mm.)

Pearl R. Meaker, Lincoln, IL.

Crochet Hooks

A: Since this style of hook is made of wood rather than metal, the attack would have to be to a relatively “soft” area. Not likely this could penetrate the chest and reach the heart or get thru the skull without breaking or shattering. But grabbing the thick end and using the pointed (hooked) end as the weapon could prove deadly.

Two areas could work:

The eye–the skull behind the eye is thin and fairly easily penetrated. So a stab to either eye could reach the brain cavity and cause bleeding into and around the brain that could prove deadly. Here there would be some external bleeding from the eye wound but most would be internal within the skull. Here it makes little difference whether the

device is removed or left in place after the attack.

The carotid arteries—there are 2 carotid arteries–one on each side of the neck in the soft area on either side of the trachea–windpipe. This device could easily penetrate one of them. These arteries supply 90% of the blood to the brain. If punctured, the blood would spurt out in great pulses. Here it would be best if the device were yanked back

out after the stab so the blood would have a clear path.

In either case, the victim could die in a couple of minutes or, in the eye stabbing scenario, it could take some time—even 30 to 90 minutes or longer. Anything is possible.


Q and A: What Happens When a Person Is Exposed to the Vacuum of Space?


Q: What sort of damage does the human body suffer in the vacuum of space?  How long can one survive and what will happen to the person who does survive?  My scenario involves an astronaut whose faceplate blows out, but not before he depressurizes his suit sufficiently to prevent immediate death.

A: First of all the victim would not explode as was the case in the movies such as Total Recall. But some very bad things do happen internally and they happen very quickly. Whether he depressurizes somewhat beforehand or not, his survival once he reached zero pressure (vacuum) would likely be measured in seconds.

Space decompression sickness is similar to that of a scuba diver that rises too rapidly after a prolonged exposure to the pressures of the deep. In this case the diver is going from excess pressure to normal pressure. In space the victim goes from normal pressure to zero pressure. Same thing physiologically.

In diving, the problem is that the excess pressure causes excess nitrogen (N) to dissolve in the blood. This N will come back out of the blood as the pressure is reduced. This should happen slowly to prevent decompression sickness or the bends. But, if the diver rises rapidly, the pressure drops rapidly, and the N comes out of the blood quickly, forming N bubbles in the blood stream. This is similar to popping the top on a soft drink. Here the release of the pressure allows the carbon dioxide (CO2), which was placed into the liquid under pressure, to come out of the liquid and form bubbles. We call this carbonization. A good thing for your soft drink, but not so good for your brain and heart and muscles.

In space decompression basically the same thing happens. Apparently the culprit is water and not N in this situation, however. With the sudden release of pressure, the water in the blood “boils,” becoming a gas, and bubbles form in the system. I should point out that in chemical and physical terms boiling simply means the changing of a liquid to a gas. This can be accomplished by adding heat (boiling water on a stove) or by lowering the ambient pressure (popping open a soft drink). In the case of space decompression it isn’t that the blood gets hot, but rather that the pressure that keeps the water in its liquid state is removed and the water changes to its gaseous state, or boils. Doesn’t sound very pleasant does it?

Though studies on the effects of exposure to a vacuum have been done on chimpanzees, there are no real data on what happens to humans exposed to zero pressure except for a couple of incidents where an astronaut or a pilot was accidentally exposed. Of course, rapid decompression has caused deaths in both high-altitude flights and in June, 1971 when the Russian spacecraft Soyuz 11 suddenly lost pressure, killing the 3 cosmonauts on board, but survivors are few and far between.

On August 16, 1960, parachutist Joe Kittinger ascended to an altitude of 102,800 feet (19.5 miles) in an open gondola in order to set a world record for high-altitude parachute jumping. He lost pressurization in his right glove but proceeded with his ascent and jump. He experienced pain and loss of function in his hand at high altitude but all returned to normal once he descended via chute to lower altitudes.

In 1965 at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston, TX, a trainee suffered a sudden leak in his spacesuit while in a vacuum chamber. He lost consciousness in 14 seconds, but revived after a few seconds as the chamber was immediately re-pressurized. He suffered no ill effects—due to his very brief exposure—but stated that he could feel water boiling on his tongue. This was actually the above mentioned boiling scenario in which water (in this case saliva) becomes a gas on exposure to zero pressure.

A case of partial, prolonged exposure occurred during an EVA (space walk) in April 1991 on the US space shuttle mission STS-37. One astronaut suffered a 1/8 inch puncture in one glove between the thumb and forefinger. He was unaware of it until later when he noticed a painful red mark on his skin in the exposed area. It appeared that the area bled some but that his blood had clotted and sealed the injury.

So, what happens to a human exposed to zero pressure? Since there is no oxygen in such an environment, loss of consciousness occurs in a matter of seconds. Also, if the victim held his breath (don’t do this during scuba diving when coming up from depths either), the air in his lungs would rapidly expand and his lungs could be damaged, bleed, or rupture. Better to open his mouth and exhale the rapidly expanding gas from his lungs.

Water in his blood stream would immediately begin to “boil,” filling the blood stream with water vapor (the gas form of water) and stopping his heart. Bubbles might appear in the blood stream and cause damage to the body’s organs, particularly the brain. As a result, the brain and nerves cease to function. As more and more gas formed within the body, the entire body would swell but it would not explode.

Exposure to heat or cold or radiation might also occur but it will do little harm since the victim would already be dead.

But what if the exposure were brief and the person rescued? Treatment would be to immediately return him to a pressurized environment and give him 100% oxygen. He may survive unharmed or may have brain and nerve damage which could be permanent.

For your scenario, whether he partially decompressed or not, he would be in trouble very quickly. When your victim’s faceplate ruptured he would hopefully begin to exhale air to prevent the expanding gases in his lungs from rupturing them. As air, and thus oxygen, flowed from his lungs and into space, the oxygen content of his blood would rapidly drop and he would lose consciousness in 10 to 20 seconds. He would then die in short order. If he were quickly rescued, he would be returned to the spacecraft, which would be pressurized, and would be given 100% oxygen via a face mask. He could survive intact or with brain damage. It’s your call. Either way works.


Would Lincoln Have Survived With Modern Medical Treatment?

Lincoln 1863

Lincoln’s assassination took place 150 years ago this evening. He died the next day, April 15, 1865. Since he lived overnight, could modern medicine techniques have saved him? Here is a question that appeared in my second Q&A book—FORENSICS AND FICTION

Would Abraham Lincoln Have Survived His Injuries Today?

Q: This is a pure curiosity question. Do you think that Lincoln could have been saved if they had today’s medical knowledge, techniques and equipment in 1864?

Martha Kuhn, Mt. Gilead, Ohio

A: Most likely, yes. He was shot in the back of his head, and the bullet apparently entered his brain. He lived for many hours so the shot was not immediately fatal. A surgeon probed the wound but feared removing the bullet, since it might cause bleeding. He probably should have, but we’ll never know.

Similar wounds today are treated by a trip to the OR, removal of the bullet, controlling bleeding, and preventing any subsequent infection. He would have had at least a 50 percent chance of survival. And since he survived several hours anyway his survival with modern techniques would likely have been much higher.



Posted by on April 14, 2015 in Medical History, Medical Issues, Trauma


Q and A: Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Three Decade Old Rape?

Q: Was it possible in 1969 (or even today for that matter) to determine if a woman found dead in sub-zero temperatures was raped by more than one assailant. If so, how could this be accomplished? Could a pathologist conclude that the woman was raped, as opposed to consensual intercourse, even if there is an absence of physical evidence such as bruising? What language would the pathologist employ when writing his conclusions?  Could evidence from 1969 be preserved (how would it be preserved?) and used today to identified suspects through DNA testing?


A: DNA for testing comes from the genetic material found in the nuclei of the body’s cells. Essentially every cell in the body contains a nucleus. The notable exception is the Red Blood Cells (RBCs), which do not contain nuclei. But, White Blood Cells (WBCs) do. DNA testing of blood tests the DNA found in the nuclei of the WBCs.

Adequate DNA samples for testing have been gleaned from semen stains, bite marks, sweat, sputum, hair, and saliva. Even from the saliva left behind by licking a stamp or sealing an envelope. In the case of saliva from stamps or bites, the DNA tested comes from the cells that line the mouth (called buccal cells), which are constantly shed into the saliva. Hair does not contain cells and thus no DNA, but hair follicles do. A single hair follicle may yield enough DNA for testing.

As you can see, very small samples might be enough.

DNA is a fairly hardy molecule and survives time, freezing, drying, mixing with other materials, and many other adverse circumstances. It does not survive heating, however. Heat denatures, or destroys, the DNA strands. It is important to note that DNA testing does not require intact cells, merely intact DNA. This means that clotted blood, dried semen, and tissue fragments found under victims’ fingernails might yield enough DNA for conclusive testing.

The sub-zero temperatures in your scenario would serve to protect the DNA and would thus help the coroner by preserving better samples for his evaluation.

Yes, he would be able to determine that there had been two assailants, since each would have his own distinctive DNA pattern. The finding of two different DNA patterns in the semen sample obtained from the victim would prove this and when the suspects were apprehended, each could be matched to his own contribution to that sample. Mixing the semen would not alter this finding in any way since each DNA strand would be unchanged. It’s not like mixing blue paint with yellow paint to make green paint but rather like mixing a bunch of tiny blue beads with tiny yellow beads. From a distance, they might appear as though they had melted together to form a green mixture, but on close examination, each tiny bead would be seen to have remained intact and separate. DNA strands don’t “melt” into one another.

DNA can last for years, decades, even centuries. It has been found in Egyptian mummies, exhumed bodies, and samples stored from very old crimes. Recently, DNA evidence linked Gary Leon Ridgway to the famous string of prostitute murders know as the Green River Murders in Washington State. The DNA evidence connected him to murders that occurred in the early 1980s. This was possible because the DNA was handled and stored properly. Typically, the sample is dried and placed in a non-reactive container such as a glass vial.

The problem of determining if a rape occurred is a question for the jury. Rape is not a medical term, but rather a legal term. The coroner could determine if penetration occurred and if semen was present. If he found trauma to the vagina or to other body parts that might suggest the victim was struck or restrained, he might conclude that in his opinion the intercourse was not consensual. Still, it would require a judge or a jury to determine whether a rape occurred or not.

Published in Suspense Magazine December, 2014


Q and A: Could Death From Bleeding Be Delayed For Several Days After a Frontier Wagon Wheel Accident?

Q: My story takes place in a wagon train in the late 1800’s. My character is dragged by a horse while crossing a river. He hits rocks and is bounced off the back wheel of a wagon. Of course the horse’s hooves do damage as well. Three days later he dies from massive bleeding from his internal injuries. This three day delay followed by the sudden loss of blood is important to the story’s timing, but is it realistic?


A: The answer to your question is yes.

This type of accident could, as you can imagine, result in all types of injuries. Broken bones, skull fractures, neck fractures, cracked ribs, punctured lungs, and intra-abdominal injuries (injuries inside the abdominal cavity). This last type of injury might serve you well.

A ruptured spleen or lacerated liver or fractured kidney would bleed into the abdominal cavity. Death could be quick or take days if the bleed was slow. There would be great pain, especially with movement or breathing, and the abdomen would swell. Also a bluish, bruise like discoloration could appear around the umbilicus (belly button) and along the flanks. This usually takes 24 to 48 hours or more to appear. This occurs as the blood seeps between the “fascial planes.” The fascia are the tough white tissues that separate muscles from one another. The blood seeps along these divisions and reaches the deeper layers of the skin causing the discoloration. But, these injuries wouldn’t lead to external bleeding since the blood has no exit from the abdominal cavity.

However, if the injury was to the bowel, then external bleeding could occur. For blood to pass from the bowel, the bleeding would have to be within the bowel itself and not just in the abdomen somewhere. If the bowel were ruptured or torn so that bleeding occurred within the bowel, the blood would flow out rectally. But, blood in the bowel acts like a laxative so the bleeding would likely occur almost immediately and continue off and on until death, which in this situation would be minutes to hours to a day, two at the most. It would be less realistic for the bleeding to wait three days before appearing in this case. With one exception.

The bowel could bruised and not ruptured or torn, and a hematoma (blood mass or clot) could form in the bowel wall. As the hematoma expanded it could compromise the blood supply to that section of the bowel. Over a day or two the bowel segment might die. We call this an “ischemic bowel.” Ischemia is a term that means interruption of blood flow to an organ. If the bowel segment dies, bleeding would follow. This could allow a 3 day delay in the appearance of blood.

In your scenario, the injuries would likely be multiple and so abdominal swelling, the discolorations I described, great pain, fevers, chills, even delirium toward the end, and finally bleeding could all occur. Not a pleasant way to die, but I would imagine this happened not infrequently in frontier days.

The victim would be placed in the bed of one of the wagons and comforted as best they could. He might be sponged with water to ease his fevers, offered water or soup, which he would likely vomit, and prayers would be said. They could have tincture of opium (a liquid) available and give him some. This would lessen the pain since it is a narcotic and would also slow the motility (movement) of the bowel and thus lessen the pain and maybe the bleeding.

Of course, during the time period of your story, your characters wouldn’t know any of the internal workings of the injury as I have described. They would only know that he was severely injured and in danger of dying. Some members of the wagon train may have seen similar injuries in the past and may know just how serious the victim’s condition is, but they wouldn’t understand the physiology behind it. They might even believe that after he survived the first two days that he was going live and then be very shocked when he eventually bleed to death. Or they might understand that the bouncing of the wagon over the rough terrain was not only painful but also dangerous for someone in his condition. They train may be halted for the three days he lived or several wagons might stay behind to tend to him while the rest of the column moved on.


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