The other night I was sitting around with some friends discussing the sort of thing college students discuss at three in the morning while avoiding chemistry homework — namely, strange mutilations of the human body. Someone told a story that sounds like an urban legend to me, but he was so sure it was true. The story goes that an obese woman felt the call of nature while on an airplane. After relieving herself in the designated cubicle, she committed the unfortunate error of flushing while still on the commode. Since airplane toilets work by suction, and since her large girth covered the entire seat opening, creating a seal, a vacuum was formed beneath her behind. The resulting pressure differential proceeded to … partially suck out her intestines! Yet through the timely intervention of an on-board physician, her life was spared (though she is no doubt doomed to eat lots of food rich in fiber for the rest of her life).
Now come on! Besides the fact that all toilets I've seen have little cushioning doohickeys between the seat and the bowl, thus creating an airspace, this story just seems a little farfetched. Can you help us get to the bottom of this? Is there yet another reason why Mom was right in telling us never to sit on public toilet seats?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
No doubt many feel this is something they could stand not to know. However, I feel an informed public is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Like you, I initially thought this was purely an urban legend. To be on the safe side, though, I dropped a line to folklore guru Jan Brunvand. To my surprise, he referred me to a letter by Philadelphia osteopath J. Brendan Wynne in the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 6, 1987, page 1177). The letter related a, how shall I say, gut-wrenching tale.
It seems the doctor was on a cruise ship moored near Vancouver, British Columbia, when he responded to an emergency call over the ship’s loudspeaker. He was asked to administer first aid to a woman who had sustained a serious pelvic injury.
“A 70-year-old, slightly obese woman was in her cabin lying on the bunk in the right lateral recumbent position,” the doctor wrote. She was alert but moaning in pain. “Protruding behind her on the bed were several feet of small intestine with [connective tissue] attached.”
The woman said she had flushed the toilet while seated. Evidently her bottom had completely sealed the toilet opening and the suction had “pulled everything out.” The woman kept repeating, “Why didn’t they warn me?’
The only warning was a sign near the toilet saying, “This toilet operates on vacuum system. Please do not throw any object except toilet paper.”
Paramedics arrived in a few moments and took the woman to a local hospital. The doctor concluded with the modest observation that this type of thing “certainly bears further investigation.”
Some have intimated that this account is a hoax, saying that if a toilet did in fact suck out somebody’s innards, you’d see the large intestine, not the small one. Not so. While I’m not about to go into detail, accounts in the medical journals of similar accidents (for example, when a toddler sits on a suction-type pool drain) suggest Wynne got it right. A United Press International story at the time confirmed the essential details of Wynne’s letter and included a telephone interview with the doctor in which he said, “I realize this almost defies belief.” I’ll say. Momma always said not to sit down on restroom toilet seats, and boy, was she right.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.