HotAIR - MEDICAL MYSTERY -- Eros in the Elevator?

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MEDICAL MYSTERY--
Eros in the Elevator?

A real-life forensic medical puzzle

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, AIR staff

In reading medical reports, one occasionally stumbles across a small mystery. Here's one that is just plain puzzling.

I was poring through abstracts of medical reports from the Indian sub-continent. One of them bore the intriguing title, "Accidental Hanging With Delayed Death in a Lift." The title, though, was as nothing compared with the question implicity raised by the abstract.

The Puzzling Facts, as We Know Them

The report was published in the October 1999 issue (vol. 39, no. 4) of the journal Medicine, Science, and the Law. The authors, S.K. Verma and B.B. Agarwal, are at the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, University College of Medical Sciences, Shahdara, Delhi, India.

Here is the abstract of their report. Read it carefully:

While hanging is a common method of committing suicide in India, accidental hanging is uncommon. However, it does occur when people are engaged in auto-erotic practices. An adult male who was helping passengers trapped in the lift of an outpatient department at a teaching hospital was accidentally hanged. He survived for 39 days. This case highlights a rare but serious hazard in the use of lifts.

I am at a loss to explain the connection between the first pair of sentences and the one that immediately follows them. Here, again, are the first two:

While hanging is a common method of committing suicide in India, accidental hanging is uncommon. However, it does occur when people are engaged in auto-erotic practices.

And here, again, is the seemingly unrelated third sentence:

An adult male who was helping passengers trapped in the lift of an outpatient department at a teaching hospital was accidentally hanged.

Perhaps I am being dense, but it seems to me that something is missing here. I cannot see the vital connection between these two pieces of information.

What Could Have Happened?

What, exactly, happened to the adult male who was helping passengers trapped in that lift?

First Set of Alternatives

There seem to be two main sets of alternatives. The first has the look and feel of a classic brain teaser.

Was the adult male engaged in some autoerotic practice alone in the elevator? If he was alone, how could there have been other passengers? Were these other passengers involved in the auto-erotic practice? If so, how could the practice -- whtever it was -- have been "auto?" Or were those other people merely spectators to the adult male's auto-erotic practice? And if they were spectators, were they witting voyeurs or unwitting watchers?

Alternatively, did the adult male interrupt his auto-erotic practice, which he was carring out in an unspecified location not in the elevator, to suddenly go and try to save the passengers of a nearby elevator, whose screaming alrerted him to their distress? If that was the case, did he die in the elevator, or did he perish in the other, here unmentioned, place, or did he fall down the elevator shaft, or, or,...what on earth did happen? And how was hanging involved? Was there a rope? Did the gentleman, if he was a gentleman, somehow become caught up by part of the elevator mechanism? There are so many ifs here.

Second Set of Alternatives

Now consider the second alternative, in which we can blame the confusion on poor writing or poor editing.

Was there in fact nothing auto-erotic either leading up to, or in any way involved with, the poor fellow's death? In editing the full report down to abstract length, perhaps the authors somhow joined together thoughts from two unrelated passages.

Under this alternative, some early passage in the full, original report would have mentioned that most accidental hangings involve auto-erotic practices. Then a more central portion of the report would have described the completely un-erotic ( albeit tragic) accident involving a heroic (but unfortunate) adult male and a group of trapped (and presumably un-erotic) elevator passengers.

Perhaps some careless or malicious editor, rather than the authors, S.K. Verma and B.B. Agarwal, compressed and conjoined the two sections.

Is this alternative the true one? Perhaps there is some third alternative, which is beyond my imagining.

What is the Solution?

Enjoying a good mystery, but being too lazy to order a copy of the full report, I am left to guess at what the true story is. I suspect that either it is very mundane, or else it is a corker.

If I were to order a copy of the full article, chances are the mystery would clear itself up. Possibly, the authors somehow left out some vital details, rendering the whole thing baffling. Possibly the story is so outre that no mortal imagination would ever correctly guess it.

If someone reading this little essay has easy access to that copy of Medicine, Science, and the Law, I would be grateful to hear from you (please email our editor at marca@chem2.harvard.edu). Surely this mystery does have a solution!

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