The survivalist's guide to do-it-yourself medicine

Come the apocalypse, who will fill your prescriptions?

Published December 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Ragnar Benson lives on nine acres in southern Idaho with his pet skunks and his wife and 100-plus guns of varying caliber. Benson is what you and I would call a survivalist, and what Benson prefers to call a preparedness type of person. Benson is more prepared than other preparedness types, for he has thought through what many others have not: things like, What if the hydrogen generator explodes in my face? What if the skunks get into the World War II Mauser pistols and put a hole in my wife? What if I need a root canal?

Benson is the author of two medical books for the preparedness culture: "Survivalist's Medicine Chest," and "Do-It-Yourself Medicine," the latter having sold more than 100,000 copies. How do recluses in backwoods Idaho procure such an item? They shop the Internet. is a godsend for the shack-bound but Internet-savvy retreater. Both Benson's medical books ship within 24 hours, as do his -- as he puts it -- "more strident" titles, e.g., "Survival Poaching and Man Trapping." (Ragnar's "Guide to Home and Recreational Use of High Explosives" has been pulled from distribution, owing to a law passed by Congress this October, which is too bad because I've been nosing around for a new pastime and high explosives sounded just the ticket.)

Benson has no medical degree. His expertise comes from his youth, which was spent on a farm in Indiana. "When one of us needed medical attention," he told me, "we dipped into our veterinary supplies." According to Benson, many pharmaceuticals for animals are the same as those formulated for humans, and can be purchased without a prescription at veterinary supply stores, of which most rural communities have several. In figuring out how to translate livestock dosages to human ones, Benson offers this jaunty rule of thumb: "The dose for a medium hog is usually correct for an adult person." He is less precise about equine preparations -- for example, those used to treat vaginal infections in mares. "Nolvasan in diluted form works wonders for human females with similar maladies," he writes, but does not specify the dilution.

Do-it-yourself medicine is a crude, catch-as-catch-can art. Benson's books explain how to use a plastic soda straw for wound drainage, how to rig an impromptu chloroform mask from an automotive funnel, how to pull metal fragments from eyes with a sterilized shop magnet. The do-it-yourself doctor gets the job done, but doesn't get it done with a great deal of finesse. "Skilled amateurs can sew up wounds provided the victims aren't overly fussy about how the finished product looks," states Benson in the opening chapter of "Do-It-Yourself Medicine." His bedside manner is pretty much what you'd imagine it to be were you a medium hog. Benson describes an encounter with a man in Africa whose eyes he had treated, and who kept taking off the bandages and reinfecting his eyes. "Using an old wooden chair leg," writes Benson, "I beat the crap out of the guy until he promised not to disregard my medical instructions again."

Between his book titles and passages like the above, one gets the impression Benson has perhaps ended more lives than he has saved. He is not easily pinned down on this. He claims to have learned about man traps while serving as an agricultural specialist in rural Southeast Asia and to have gleaned his explosives know-how as a teenager helping the local "powder monkey" blow up foundations and retaining walls for farmers.

Benson knows a fair amount about medicine, but mostly he knows about procuring medical supplies without prescriptions. For those without access to veterinary supply stores, he details several alternatives: flying on the cheap to Puerto Rico or Mexico, where pharmacies sell drugs to non-doctors, or ordering by mail from overseas druggists in similarly lax places like Jakarta or Bangkok. To get the phone number of an overseas pharmacy, Benson suggests contacting that country's U.S. embassy. There is apparently a government publication listing all the phone numbers of overseas embassies, but I'm not going to tell you any more than that, because then you'll have no reason to buy "Do-It-Yourself Medicine" and Ragnar Benson will come beat the crap out of me with a wooden chair leg.

When it comes to putting medical supplies to use, Benson is less copiously informed. "Manipulate the bones back into some semblance of order," he tells the do-it-yourselfer attempting to cope with a comminuted fracture. He advocates practicing stitches and injections on oranges and general anesthesia on livestock or pets. "I have personally," writes Benson, "killed a number of four-legged critters attempting to administer general anesthetics." I told him it sounded like he was idly experimenting on defenseless animals, by which he was mildly affronted. He explained that the critter in question was a beloved pet skunk that he was de-scenting. "Another thing is castrating hogs," Benson said to me. "Lots of times they rupture, so you have to do an internal stitch and then an external stitch to save the hog." I wasn't sure what the "they" in "they rupture" referred to; however, as with many of Ragnar Benson's stories, a little nonspecificity is probably a good thing.

And what if there's no Ragnar Benson-type around to administer to you? What of the hapless Ted Kaczynski-type loner? Can you sew up your own letter-bomb mishaps, debride your own hydrogen burns? Benson says yes. He tells the story of a Londoner named Evan O'Neill Kane who performed his own appendectomy and had so much fun he repaired his own hernia two years later.

I asked Benson what exactly preparedness types are preparing for. "Flooding," he began, "earthquake, nuclear attack ..." Then he stopped. "There are a number of people out there who, for whatever reason, just don't want to be dependent on others. I thought they could use this information, and that's why I wrote this book. I want to stick my thumb in the eye of the government." And the government, if it's smart, will have stocked up on veterinary-grade tetracycline salves, which can be cut down appropriately for use in human eyes.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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