It certainly would be dramatic if we had our gunshot trauma patients take a swig of whiskey and bite on their belt as we removed the bullet with a knife that had been sterilized by heating over a fire. I also would love to ride a white horse to work every day but that doesn’t happen either.
In old Westerns, there is an urgency involved with removing a bullet, as if this is the life-saving maneuver. In reality, doctors are not concerned with the presence of the bullet but rather the damage that it does on its way in or out. We often see patients who get an X ray for another reason only to find a bullet from a previous surgery.
There are some special situations when we worry about leaving a bullet in a person’s body. When bullets or fragments are near large blood vessels, nerves (especially the spinal cord), or in a joint, then they can migrate and cause damage. In these cases, bullets are usually removed.
People have also asked whether or not you can get lead poisoning from bullets that are left in the body. In general, lead fragments in soft tissue become surrounded by fibrous tissue and are therefore essentially inert. If a bullet is in a joint, there can be a problem with lead poisoning. A study in Los Angeles in 2002 looked at more than four hundred patients who had bullets retained in their bodies. They found increased levels of lead in a small percentage of patients. Bullets or shotgun pellets are 50 to 100 percent lead and people are more likely to have problems with lead poisoning if there are multiple bullets or multiple fragments in the body. Sorry to disappoint you spaghetti Western aficionados, but the old whiskey-and-leather routine is just for show.Photo credit: The Library of Congress / Foter