Saving Lives With Just A Knife And Pen

File this one under ‘awesome.’

We’ve all seen the TV shows/movies where the intrepid hero saves the life of a choking character by nicking open the throat and making a breathing tube out of a pen or whatever else is handy. While it makes for great drama, it isn’t the sort of thing you expect happens all that often in real life.

Knife and Pen

Except that it does. And it actually works. And Irish researchers have shown that even the untrained are capable of performing the procedure more or less successfully.

Papermate Flexgrip Ultra Black

At Trinity College in Dublin, nine junior doctors and medical students with no experience in this type of procedure were given scalpels and Paper Mate FlexGrip Ultras and asked to perform emergency cricothyroidtomies on cadavers.

(A cricothyroidtomy is what we all think of as a tracheotomy, making an opening in the throat just below the Adam’s apple and inserting a tube to create an airway.)

The procedure was performed 14 times.

According to the study:

Eight of 14 (57%) procedures were deemed successful. No major vascular injury occurred. Injuries to the thyroid and cricoid cartilages were common; four of 14 (29%) of these injuries were fractures.

Researchers concluded that “surgical cricothyroidotomy with a ballpoint pen and blade is a feasible option in extremis.”

Interestingly, not all pens are suitable for this sort of thing. In fact, another study in the UK found that the diameter of most pens is too small to allow enough airflow to make effective emergency breathing tubes.

Researchers took eight “commonly available ballpoint pens” and evaluated them based on their size, the ease and speed with which they could be taken apart and turned into tubes and the amount of airflow resistance through the pens.

(Not sure how they decided the pens were “commonly available” because there were no Pilot, Paper Mate, Uniball, Pentel or other common pens on the list, although it did include Staedtler and the Parker Jotter).

Only two pens passed the test for use in emergency cricothyroidtomies: The Baron Sprite and the Bic Softfeel Jumbo. The Sprite seems mainly to be one of those mass-ordered promotional pens that businesses hand out. The Softfeel Jumbo has been discontinued.

What do you want to bet that certain Japanese pens could probably do the trick in a pinch? Pilot has some wide-barrel pens. Or something like the Zebra F-301, if there was nothing else.

Even the US government’s own Skilcraft pen has reportedly been used for that purpose by the military.

Whichever ones work, it’s pretty cool to think that the pens we walk around with every day could be turned into life-saving devices if the need ever arises.

Remember: This is a procedure of absolute last resort, only to be used in the most extreme emergency situations. Don’t take this as a suggestion to go about puncturing people in the throat.

Photo of author

Tony Bridges

As a seasoned journalist and freelance writer, I've spent over three decades telling stories and exploring the world through the written word. With a passion for writing instruments, I found my niche at The Pen Vibe, a blog that shares our collective fascination with pens, pencils, and other tools that have shaped the art of writing.

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