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Even Mummy Doctors Forgot Tools in Their Patients Sometimes

Researchers examining the brains of mummies have found a small tool that was used during embalming, left behind after the procedure

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Image: Leah Tihia

Each year, about 1,500 people leave the doctor’s office with some sort of surgical object left inside them. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Researchers examining the brains of mummies have found a small tool that was used during embalming, left behind after the procedure. Live Science reports:

“We cut it with a clamp through the endoscope and then removed it from the skull,” said lead researcher Dr. Mislav Čavka, of the University Hospital Dubrava in Zagreb Croatia, in an interview with LiveScience.

They found themselves peering at an object more than 3 inches (8 centimeters) long that would have been used for liquefying and removing the brain. “It almost definitely would have been used in excerebration of the mummy,” Čavka said.

The reason this happened to this mummy is probably the same reason it happens today—surgery is stressful, surgeons are rushed, and humans are forgetful. One press release from a law firm puts it this way:

“The main cause for surgical tools left in patients is human error such as a surgeon who is distracted or rushed,” said Seattle medical malpractice attorney Chris Davis. “Although most hospitals require that surgeons write a detailed post-operative medical report describing the surgery that was performed, typically surgical errors are not reported.”

There have been all sorts of studies about how to cut down the number of “retained surgical instruments” in modern patients, but mummies didn’t exactly have the advantage of malpractice lawyers or post-surgery CT scans to help them out.

For this mummy, the tool in question was made up of plant matter similar to bamboo and palm. But in the most detailed account historians have of mummification, brain removal is done by “an iron hook.” This finding suggests that the hook isn’t iron at all. Live Science reports:

The recent discovery suggests an organic stick, not an “iron hook,” was used in at least some of these procedures, possibly for economic reasons. Researchers note that the tool found in the skull of the other mummy, dating from 2,200 years ago, was also made of an organic material.

“It is known that mummification was widely practiced throughout ancient Egyptian civilization, but it was a time-consuming and costly practice. Thus, not every­one could afford to perform the same mummifi­cation procedure,” write the researchers in their journal article.

So not only have human doctors always been forgetful, human patients seem to always have been treated differently depending on who they were.

More from Smithsonian.com:

CT Scanners Crack Open a Mummy Mystery
Heart Disease Found in Ancient Egyptian Mummies

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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