HURRICANE — I have always had an irrational fear, albeit minor and not debilitating, of death by tooth infection. I’ve had countless cavities and one root canal in my life, and deep within my subconsciousness, specifically where my memories, fears and anxieties reside, there is a voice somewhere telling me that the end is near.
Recently, in a trip to Hurricane Utah, I was able to visit these fears and put them mostly to rest.
I didn’t know my Great Uncle Garth Barber, he died in 1937 when he was only 21 years old. I first learned about Uncle Garth and his premature death at a family reunion at a lodge in the woods of Western Washington. The lodge smelled of old people and potato salad. I was 9 or 10 at the time and was bored and somewhat anxious with all of the new faces around that were family, by blood not by choice.
While chewing on some fried chicken and stale rolls, I overheard a conversation coming from the crowd of grey haired elder family statesman seated at an adjacent table.
“Uncle Garth, well he died of a tooth infection. It got so bad that it erupted and went to his brain and killed him before there was anything that could be done.”
I must have been in some initial shock as I listened to my aunts, uncles and grandparents talk about Garth’s untimely death. But, I also found solace in my own juvenile understanding of “The Olden Days” and the notion that everyone died young back then. Furthermore, we live in a new world of vaccination, scientific advancement and modern medicine, and I would not fall victim to early death by tooth infection.
Still it seemed like such a cheap way to go. And is mortality really that fragile? And maybe the Barbers’ have delicate genes, more susceptible to early death than others?
Over the next couple of decades of my life, the question of Garth’s death would often come to mind and conversation if visiting a Barber relative at a family reunion. I was usually told the same thing, that Garth died of a tooth infection. But, I refused to fully believe it.
The death of Garth became a mystery to me.
In a recent trip through Hurricane Utah, the birthplace and resting ground of Garth Barber, we made a short detour through the local cemetery. On the Northern end of the property and nearest to the little used dirt road, was Garth’s small and insignificant gravestone.
He was buried next to his parents. There wasn’t a wife, child or epitaph, just a tablet sized stone and a couple of flower pedals clinging to the nearby earth. The pedals likely blew in from a nearby memorial.
I did not know that his first name was Leslie. I’m sure that many casual observers of his gravestone mistake Garth for a female. I think we have also mistaken his cause of death.
I resolved that for the legacy of Garth and for my own peace of mind, that I would attempt to solve the mystery of his death.
I spent the next two days gathering all of the materials about Garth that were available. There wasn’t a lot. A couple of journal entries, a family book of remembrance, a conversation with my 93 year old Grandma Barber, and a statement of Garth’s death in my Grandpa Barber’s biography.
I also searched and found his Salt Lake City death certificate, that was readily downloadable on a surprisingly user friendly state owned website.
I engaged the services of my medically trained emergency doctor brother, Dr. David Keith Barber M.D. to help me sort through the evidence, come up with a hypothesis and medically sound conclusions that would put this issue to rest.
A review of all of the sources of materials at our disposal revealed the following:
1). Three out of four family stories spoke of a history of trauma to his head (logging accident, fall, head injury). LaRue, the oldest daughter and acting matriarch stated “Garth was hit by a piece of lumber, causing a concussion. He suffered from terrible headaches for a couple of days. Every time the refrigerator motor turned on, he would scream from the noise. Finally, a Doctor from Kanab suggested they take him to Salt Lake City where a brain abscess ruptured in the elevator.”
2). In a contradicting history, Leila, an older sister, stated that “the family needed to go to Salt Lake City for him to receive proper dental care. He developed an abscess on the root of one of his teeth and it ruptured and the poison went to his brain. He died in the elevator going to the surgery room.”
3). My Grandpa David Keith Barber, a younger brother of Garth’s and best friend, stated in his biography “Garth had been sick during the summer. At Thanksgiving time he was taken to Salt Lake City to be operated on for an abscess on the brain. He underwent an unsuccessful operation and passed away shortly thereafter.”
4). The official death certificate states as the principle cause of death: “abscess of brain in region of 4th ventricle. Headaches started about 4 months ago.” As a contributory cause of death it states “Bad teeth (inflammation)”.
The 1930’s — Primitive Medical Standards:
Prior to issuing any conclusory statements, Dr. David Barber wanted to first refer to the medical journals at the time and in the place where Garth’s final medical treatment took place.
A cursory review of the medical literature from the 1930’s, in the specialty of neurology and brain abscesses and operations revealed the following:
1). There was an over diagnosis, suspicion of and operation on brain abscesses during the 1930’s in America. Medical literature and case studies were just taking shape and patients were often the victim of overly ambitious surgical procedures. As there was no imaging (CT Scans, MRI) available for use, a diagnosis was made based on subjective symptoms (headaches, dizziness, etc.).
2). The mortality rate of a brain operation to excise an abscess was 88% (it was basically a death sentence).
3). Tooth infection was commonly listed as a cause of death, even though it was a statistical anomaly. (The practice of listing tooth infection as a common cause of death dates back to 17th century Europe and followed to America. If you look at the current statistics, only about 1 in 1 million untreated tooth infections cause brain injury).
I’m not a doctor or medically trained, but I reviewed the same literature that my Brother, Dr. Dave looked to. In my layman’s opinion, Uncle Garth was taken to the grave by a faulty diagnosis and non-indicated operation, as a lamb is taken to the slaughter.
I’m sure he did not consent to the operation, at least with full knowledge of the known risks, including and especially the dismal odds of survival.
Garth Could have Lived a Full and Long Life
After a review of Garth’s history and the relevant medical literature from the time of his death, Dr. David Barber has made the following medical conclusions, to a reasonable degree of medical probability:
1). Garth Barber likely had a traumatic injury to his head that resulted in post concussive symptoms, including severe headaches, dizziness and pain;
2). Garth was likely misdiagnosed, based on subjective complaints, with a brain abscess. He was more likely suffering from post concussive symptoms and maybe chronic migraines;
3). The cause of Garth’s death was likely a post operative insult and hemorrhaging that led to his sudden death in the elevator;
4). The likelihood is that without the brain operation, Garth would have lived to normal life expectancy, though he may have continued to suffer for some time with post concussive symptoms, headaches and migraines;
5). There is a very low probability that his inflamed gums or bad teeth had anything to do with his death.
Uncle Garth Did Not Die of a Toothache
Sadly the world didn’t know Uncle Garth for very long. He had such a genial face and smile that might have influenced us all, including my own Grandpa, David Keith Barber. Garth probably did not die of a toothache. He died of primitive medical ambition.
Written by LEVI BARBER.