Down the hatch, without a scratch.

"Champion Sword Swallower" - attributed to Neiman Eisman

“Champion Sword Swallower” – attributed to Neiman Eisman

Happy World Sword Swallower’s Day!

Two important threads have run throughout my work as a writer in recent years. One is my passion for exploring stories that are inspired by events or movements in medical history, and the other is my admiration and respect for sideshow folk. While writing my play, “Jerome, the Historical Spectacle” (which features a traveling band of Victorian sideshow performers) I also began the research for writing my second novel, “The Virgin Cure.” The novel contains a character based on my great great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda, who in real life became the first female physician to be accepted into any medical society in the United States. In the novel, “Dr. Sadie” is friend to dime museum owner Mr. Thadeus Dink who also runs a theatre and sideshow on the premises. One scene in the book depicts Dr. Sadie visiting the museum’s resident sword swallower,  Miss Eva who is suffering from a case of “sword throat.” (Thanks to Google and some helpful tweets from two amazing present-day sword swallowers, Dan Meyer and Lady Aye, I was able to get the details right.)

Edith Cliftord depicted on a card from Messers Chewing Gum (circa 1910)

Edith Clifford depicted on a card from Messers Chewing Gum (circa 1910)

Dr. Kussmaul’s rigid endoscope

Imagine my wonder and surprise when my research further revealed that there was an even greater connection between the art of sword swallowing and the history of medicine…

In 1868 Dr. Adolph Kussmaul (on the recommendation of his colleague, Dr. Mueller) carefully observed a sword swallower paying special attention to the way he positioned his head for the passage of a long straight sword. Impressed with what he’d witnessed, he then decided to examine the sword swallower himself.

“For this purpose, he had a local instrument maker fashion tubes 47 cm long and 13 mm in diameter, one being round and the other elliptical in design, the tubes fitted with conical wooden mandarins to facilitate insertion. Using the straight tube, mirrors and a gasoline lamp, Kussmaul inspected the esophagus and the fundus of the stomach, thereby performing the first successful esophagoscopy/esophagogastrostomy on a sword swallower.The sword swallower tolerated the long tubes well, but the examination was disappointing because the light was too weak to illuminate the field so far from its source. Also, despite washing out the stomach, fluid constantly collected around the tube and hindered the view. After considerable experimentation, Kussmaul and Müller managed to improve the light of their endoscope, and subsequently examined a number of patients. Kussmaul was so pleased with his success that he took the sword swallower with him to perform demonstrations in various clinics, and later enlisted other sword swallowers due to their ability to voluntarily relax the cricopharyngeal muscle and form a straight line from the pharynx to the stomach, allowing passage of the rigid endoscope. Today Kussmaul is recognized as being the developer of the first rigid endoscope.” – from the History of Sword Swallowing at

Those with or without Lynch syndrome who have benefited from the procedure we know today as endoscopy owe their thanks to a curious, ingenious doctor and a brave and willing sword swallower. “Down the hatch without a scratch!”

Here’s Lady Aye in action during an appearance on the show, “Oddities.”

And here’s Dan Meyer, President of Sword Swallowers Association International accepting the 2007 “Ig Nobel Prize” in Medicine with Dr. Brian Witcombe, Radiologist at Gloucester Royal Hospital, for their medical research on sword swallowing injuries. The collaboration between sword swallowers and medical researchers continues!

Notes: For more information about the research conducted by Meyer and Witcombe (and 46 SSAI volunteers) read this excellent Scientific American Article by Jennifer Ouellette. “By the Sword.”

The official declaration of World Sword Swallowers Day 2014 at SSAI

For more history on the art of sword swallowing go to

Wikipedia page for Dr. Adolf Kussmaul

More about my novel, The Virgin Cure



Prep and Landing

"Diverticulosis" by Penny Oliver

“Diverticulosis” by Penny Oliver

Tomorrow I’ll make my way to the hospital for my thirteenth annual colonoscopy. Fingers and toes crossed, all will be well. Lucky thirteen!

Even though I’ve been through the procedure many times before, seeing the date for my appointment circled on the calendar still makes my belly lurch, still jangles my nerves, still pushes my “youngest child” buttons, leaving me wishing I could hide in a laundry hamper, cloaked in my mother’s bathrobe for a good long while. I understand these feelings come from fear -a very real, deep, justified, generations-old fear, nagging in the back of my brain. I also understand that I must not let my fear win.

Colonoscopies save lives.

That statement isn’t just some phrase gastroenterologists and colorectal cancer awareness advocates spout off for effect. It’s a proven fact. A pre-cancerous polyp found and removed during a colonoscopy can prevent cancer from ever occurring. A tumor found early via a routine scope can lead to life-saving surgery and treatment. (Just ask my brother. His CRC was caught very early during an annual colonoscopy. Now Mr. Semi-colon Smarty-Pants regularly trains for and competes in triathlons. Way to go, bro! )

I know...this caption ignores the place of tricorders in the Star Trek universe. Still, it's pretty funny.

I know…this caption ignores the place of tricorders in the Star Trek universe. Still, it’s pretty funny.

From the trenches

Although I may feel somewhat anxious about the prep and procedure, I know that showing up for my annual colonoscopy is one of the most important things I can do for myself and my family. No matter if your medical history requires it (as it does with Lynch Syndrome,) or if you’re having symptoms that need to be checked out, or if you’re of an age where it’s time for you to suck it up and commit to the purge; I promise you, if you stop and think about the bigger picture and what you stand to lose if you let things go, you won’t regret making and keeping your appointment.

To that end, (pun intended) here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that have made the prep and landing easier.

Colonoscopy Tips and Tricks a la Ami

(Disclaimer: the information in this post should NOT be considered a substitute for medical advice. Always follow your doctor’s instructions when it comes to health care!)

 *Make a Game Plan (about a week or so before the big day.)

– Make sure you’ve made arrangements with and informed work, school, family and friends. (Do your best to get over the “ick” factor when talking to others about it. It’s important to own what’s going on. A colonoscopy is just as important and valid and normal as any other event in life that requires a day off!)

– Pick up your prep a few days before (especially if it’s new to you.) That way you can read through the instructions and still have time to call your doctor if you have any questions.

– Plan meals for THREE days (prep day, the day of your procedure and the day after) ahead of time. According to your doctor’s instructions you’ll be on a clear liquids diet for the prep, so you’ll want to pick up those foods and drinks and have them on hand. (Hello, Jello!) Also, if you’re the person in your household who plans and cooks most of the meals, then turn those duties over to someone else for those days if possible. You’ll need to concentrate on the prep, you’ll be a little weak from not eating, and you’ll want to ease back into your belly afterwards, so it’s nice to not spend time in the kitchen if you don’t have to.

-Arrange your ride to and from the hospital or doctor’s office. (Don’t forget – no driving or life-altering decisions for 24 hours, peeps.)

*Three days before

– Eliminate nuts, popcorn, seeds from your diet. (Some doctors say five or even seven days. Follow your doctor’s orders, please!)

– Meat eaters might want to refrain from red meat, or all meat if possible.

*Two days before

– Eliminate fruit skins (or fruits with skins/seeds, berries, etc.) and leafy roughage.

– Eliminate foods that are red, orange, purple.

– Meat eaters switch to fish or go meatless.

-Taper food intake during the day before the prep. (Make each meal smaller than the previous one.) I know the impulse might be to “load up” before prep day by eating favourite foods and perhaps more than usual, but when it’s go time you’ll regret it.

– Mix up your jello the night before your prep day so it’s already set in the fridge and ready to eat.

*Prep day! I was always a keener in school, so I take a fair bit of pride when my doctor praises me for having done a fabulous job when it comes to the colonoscopy prep.(I’m the Lisa Simpson of colonoscopies!) All joking aside, it’s incredibly important to put your best efforts into having the most effective prep possible. If your colon’s not clear, then you run the risk of the doctor missing a polyp or even having to turn you away because he/she couldn’t get a good enough view. (You know what they say…the only thing worse than a colonoscopy is TWO colonoscopies.)

– Don’t cheat. Follow your doctor’s instructions to the letter. Stick to the clear fluid diet. Drink ALL the prep at the right times. Drink plenty of fluids. Drink plenty of fluids. Drink plenty of fluids. (Gatorade, or something similar helps to keep your electrolytes in balance. Better than water alone)

– Pack what you need for the hospital/appointment. Medical and insurance cards, paperwork, comfortable clothes, reading materials, etc.

– Wear comfortable clothes during prep. Lose fitting pants are a must.

– If being hungry bothers you, avoid TV with commercials, women’s lifestyle/food magazines, food blogs, and Pinterest recipe boards. This year my prep is on Super Bowl Sunday…so, it’s novel reading and Netflix for me. (Sorry, Payton!)

– Keep baby wipes on hand in the bathroom, they’re much gentler than toilet paper on the tush.

– Keep extra reading materials in the bathroom. Maybe a radio or iPod, too.

– Curling up with a heating pad on your belly can help ease gassy cramps.

– Some people have special tricks to help the liquid prep go down easy such as refrigerating it, mixing it with various drink powders or sodas, etc. I live in Canada and have used Pico Salax for quite a while, so I don’t have many complaints when it comes to ingesting my prep. For those of you who do have difficulty, take it easy, try not to stress and keep your goal in mind. I know it can be quite a challenge! Don’t be afraid to let your doctor know if your prep medicine is causing you distress. She/he should be able to give you advice and/or adjust things to make it easier to ingest.

*Day of the Procedure

– Don’t be embarrassed to wear an adult diaper to your appointment. I live nearly an hour from the hospital, so I’d rather be safe than sorry.

– Ask the nurse for a pillow to place between your legs when you’re in recovery. (Pulling your knees up and putting the pillow between your legs can help you pass gas.)

– Ask the person picking you up to have a bottle of water and/or other liquid such as Gatorade on hand for the ride home. You’ll be thirsty and need the fluids!

– Ease back into eating. Try to resist the impulse to wolf down a big meal. This is your chance to be kind to your body and make a fresh start. Think pro-biotics, think easy on the digestive system. You’ll be back to normal soon enough.

Last but not least …

– Be proud of yourself for making this a priority.

– Thank your doctor and his/her team. (I have a torturous colon, so my doc. gets mad props from me!)

– Don’t forget to laugh!


The artwork featured at the top of this post is by the talented artist, Penny Oliver, who has created many paintings inspired by anatomy and medicine. You can see more of her work at Diagnosis Art.

If you’ve ever wondered about the finesse required to perform a colonoscopy, this article will give you a better idea of the challenges your gastroenterologist faces on a daily basis. Colonoscopy: Art or Science.