Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

No training, no medical license, no problem!: 20 scenes where civilians perform surgery

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

1. A friend with a hunting knife performs a C-section on The Walking Dead (2012)
When there’s no doctor around, a person in dire need of a medical procedure will have to accept whatever hands are available. These civilian surgeons need some combination of luck, dexterity, and emotional fortitude to pull off what it takes regular doctors decades to learn. Luckily for The Walking Dead’s Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies), what she requires isn’t terribly complex—she just needs a C-section. Of course, with no instruments or anesthetic or stitching gear around, it gets a little messy: Maggie (Lauren Cohan) cuts her open with a hunting knife, in one of the most graphic, bloody scenes in basic-cable history. Callies is only a new mom for a couple of minutes before she shuffles off. And then she’s finished off by her own son, who doesn’t want her to suffer the one fate worse than an amateur buck-knife C-section followed by death—turning into a zombie.

2. Clooney provides lung decompression with a needle in Three Kings (1999)
When Mark Wahlberg’s character takes a bullet to the lung in David O. Russell’s absolutely essential Gulf War movie Three Kings, his partner in military crime George Clooney has to step in with a pretty gross but essential bit of field surgery. He sticks a needle into Wahlberg’s lung to release the air that’s building up in a bad spot—and the needle has a release valve on the end of it. Then, every 15 minutes or so, Wahlberg needs to release the valve and let the air out. The surgery itself is given visual oomph by CG graphics of the lung collapsing, oozing, and generally being the disgusting inside of a human body.

3. Travolta slams down the adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction (1994)
One of the most tense and funny scenes in an incredibly tense and funny movie, the adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction is one of its most memorable. (And that’s saying something in a movie with the gimp, the kangaroo, the backseat shooting, Sam Jackson’s repeated Bible speech, a Big Kahuna burger, etc.) Does it count as surgery? Sure—it’s plenty invasive when John Travolta lifts a giant needle high above his head and stabs it into Uma Thurman’s chest, after being instructed by Eric Stoltz that he has to get through the breastplate. (Unsung Pulp Fiction line: “I gotta stab her three times?”) As Rosanna Arquette says when it’s done, “That was fuckin’ trippy.”


4. Jon Voight offers a calm tracheotomy in Anaconda (1997)
Anaconda has the dubious distinction of showing both a civilian surgery and a snake regurgitating Jon Voight’s decomposing body. While diving in the nefarious Amazon River, Eric Stoltz’s mild-mannered anthropologist is attacked by a deadly wasp, which somehow manages to get inside his mouth even though he’s wearing a scuba mask. Poisoned and unable to breathe, Stoltz loses consciousness as Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube fret over what to do with him. Luckily, a deranged snake hunter (Voight) who’s recently joined the crew finds a solution with a pen, a small knife, and a canteen of whiskey. Using the liquor to sterilize the knife and the pen’s outer casing, Voight performs an emergency tracheotomy, using the pen as the tube for Stoltz to breathe through. “That’s it, he’s going to be all right,” Voight says nonchalantly as everyone else looks on, terrified.

5. The main characters meet-cute via tracheotomy in The Princess And The Warrior (2000)
Though Tom Tykwer’s The Princess And The Warrior largely eschews the action that defined his 1998 breakthrough film, Run Lola Run, it has one exhilarating sequence that turns a footrace into an unusual form of meet-cute. Benno Fürmann stars as a former soldier who takes up a life of crime; Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente plays a psychiatric hospital nurse who meets him by grisly coincidence. As Fürmann flees the cops after robbing a grocery store, a semi flattens Potente at a crosswalk, leaving her unable to speak or breathe. When he dives under the truck to evade capture and discovers her there dying, Fürmann immediately springs into action, yanking a straw out of a pedestrian’s soda cup and performing an emergency tracheotomy by cutting an incision into her throat, jamming in a half-straw, and slurping free a passageway. By bloody necessity, they forge a bond that transcends language.


6. The chaplain performs a tracheotomy by phone on M*A*S*H (1976)
“No matter how well you bluff, eventually you have to put your cards on the table,” unit chaplain Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) says as he heads to the front lines in a season-five episode of the Korean war dramedy M*A*S*H. While he’s technically a soldier himself, he’s never been near combat, which becomes an issue when an infantryman with a self-inflicted wound refuses to accept his counsel, assuming he can’t understand the real pressures of war. So Mulcahy disobeys an order to stay in camp, and goes to the front to pick up a wounded soldier, who starts choking on his own tongue on the way back to base. Getting step-by-step phone instructions from the doctors back in camp, Mulcahy employs his own Tom Mix pocketknife and eyedropper to give the wounded man an emergency field tracheotomy, while shells explode around them. By the time the padre gets back to camp, he’s manned up to the point where he’s the one telling people they can’t understand the pressure of that experience unless they’ve been there themselves. And heading back to the 18-year-old who shot himself in the foot, Mulcahy more or less says, “I’ve earned the right to talk to you, I slashed open a man’s throat under fire.” (He puts it more gently.)

7. Sly Stallone cauterizes his shrapnel wound with gunpowder and fire in Rambo III (1988)
Sylvester Stallone’s silent-but-deadly character John Rambo gets himself in plenty of scrapes throughout his ridiculous adventures, and needs to patch himself up on several occasions. The most memorable is in Rambo III, when Rambo first pushes a piece of shrapnel out of a wound on the side of his torso with his thumb, then proceeds to dump gunpowder into the gaping hole and light it on fire in order to cauterize the wound. Stallone’s “hoo-ah” of pain is worth watching the whole movie for.

8. Javier Bardem extracts a bullet from himself and sews up the hole in No Country For Old Men (2007)
Hitmen with long rap sheets can’t go to the hospital, so when Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) takes a bullet in his thigh after an encounter with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), he has to take matters into his own hands, literally. First, he shoplifts some first-aid and surgery supplies in the most badass way possible—by blowing up a car to create a diversion—then heads back to his hotel room for some self-surgery. With steady hands, he carefully cleans the wound, digs out the bullet with surgical tools, then stitches up his leg like it’s a routine event. (In his world, maybe it is.) That he does it almost expressionless—his face betrays only the slightest indication of pain—proves yet again that Chigurh has ice in his veins. That’ll come in handy after his car wreck later.

9. Robert De Niro instructs Jean Reno on bullet removal in Ronin (1998)
John Frankenheimer’s Ronin has plenty of tense moments, usually involving car chases and shootouts, but the most nail-biting of them comes halfway through the movie, when Robert De Niro’s Sam has to direct his own surgery. After a disastrous gun battle over the movie’s McGuffin (a briefcase whose contents are never revealed), Sam is hit with a ricocheting bullet. Unable to seek medical help, he has to rely on his partner, Vincent (Jean Reno), to remove it, carefully explaining each step as he’s being poked and prodded. The scene’s not the most gruesome on this list, but De Niro’s calm attitude is incredibly unnerving as he guides Reno through cutting him open and ensuring there’s no infection.

10. There’s another damn unexpected tracheotomy in Salvador (1986)
Salvador, Oliver Stone’s field report from Central America in the early ’80s, stars James Woods as a journalist who’s such a maverick self-starter that he just up and drives from San Francisco to El Salvador so he can cover the ongoing civil war. A one-man investigative unit, Woods also functions as an emergency medical service. When a photojournalist played by John Savage is strafed by a plane just as he’s snapping a picture, Woods hunkers down in the street and performs an amateur tracheotomy, struggling to save his life. He fails, because Savage’s character is based on John Hoagland, an actual photographer who was killed while covering the war for Newsweek. But Savage couldn’t care less; he dies with a hole in his throat but a smile on his face, because he got a great photo out of it.



11. Kate sutures Jack with a sewing kit on Lost (2004)
Over the seasons, the sick and injured inhabitants of Lost’s mysterious island benefited greatly from the presence of spinal surgeon Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox)—and later, fertility doctor Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell) as well as clinical psychologist Libby Smith (Cynthia Watros), not to mention that handy Dharma-provided operating theater. But way back in the series’ pilot, after playing super-doctor to the traumatized survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, Jack finds himself in need of a little medical attention of his own, or at least a steady hand for him to guide with his expertise. Enter Kate Austen (Evangeline Lilly), who sutures the wound on Jack’s back using the needle and thread from a sewing kit—standard black thread, natch—as he talks her through the procedure. As far as life-saving procedures on Lost go, it’s pretty minor—as Jack reminds Kate when she balks at his request for help—but it’s an important, relationship-defining moment in the complicated history between the two characters.

12. Swayze uses dental floss to suture himself in Road House (1989) 
“Pain don’t hurt,” says Patrick Swayze’s bouncer sensei to a doctor (Kelly Lynch) tending to his wounds in Road House, projecting the combination of toughness and Zen-like serenity that’s made him the best and sexiest drunk-tosser in the business. The doctor is treating a gaping wound with staples and dressing, but Swayze has accumulated a lot of battle scars over the years and he can’t afford to go to the hospital every time he gets dinged up. Earlier in the film, Swayze treats a cut to his shoulder from a switchblade by stitching himself up with dental floss, without anesthetics. Lynch admires his handiwork: “Good, clean stitches.” Later, they make love.

13. Divine chews off her own umbilical cord in Female Trouble (1974)
Just based on Dawn Davenport’s disinterest in academic pursuits—she’d rather nosh on a meatball sub than pay attention in class—it’s difficult to anticipate that the teenage delinquent (played by Divine) would be able to successfully deliver her own baby. Dawn’s nine-month ordeal begins on Christmas Day after she fights with her parents about her cha-cha heels, then gets a ride from a skeevy dude (also played by Divine) who impregnates her on a soiled roadside mattress. (Yes, Divine fucks Divine.) After an unsuccessful attempt to secure financial assistance from her baby-daddy, Dawn ends up alone at Baltimore’s Hotel Albion, using a dirty green couch to quickly and efficiently give birth to a baby girl. The apex of her amateur-obstetrics heroism comes when she vigorously chews off the umbilical cord in an act that is clearly more instinctual than it is scientific (or hygienic, for that matter). It all takes less than a minute, but in a career littered with gross-out events, this is one of John Waters’ finest, filthiest moments.


14. A con man performs a hysterectomy in Chameleon Street (1989)
Chameleon Street, the actor Wendell B. Harris’ first (and, thus far, only) feature as a writer-director, made the news a couple of times, first by winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, and then when word got out that no major studio wanted to distribute it, but some of them were interested in remaking it—after softening its edges and racial attitudes—as a vehicle for Will Smith or Sinbad. Harris stars as William Street, a genius-level malcontent who—having concluded that as a black man he has to conceal his true identity to get anywhere in America—becomes an all-purpose con man and impersonator, using his brains and nerve to step into professions for which he has no credentials or formal training. Street learns just how far brains and nerve can take him when he passes himself off as a surgeon and, after stalling (and studying a textbook) for as long as he can, finally has to step into the operating room to keep his ruse going. His first hysterectomy is a tense affair, but it goes well and he’s soon performing them regularly and collecting compliments on his polished technique.

15. An appendectomy goes poorly in Stephen King’s The Stand (1978)
The best part of Stephen King’s apocalyptic opus is the attention King pays to the way societies break down, and how easily the things we take for granted can disappear. After a fatal, horrifically contagious virus kills most of the world's population, the survivors face an existence without the luxuries of electric power, government infrastructure, or popular television programs. Also, there’s a distinct shortage of ambulances, hospitals, and doctors, which becomes a problem when Stuart Redman and his friends meet up with a guy suffering from appendicitis. With the help of a medical textbook and a lot of chutzpah, Stu, an ex-factory worker who never graduated college, tries to perform the surgery himself. It goes badly. In a book full of death, magic, and calamity, something about the small, immediate horror of that botched gutting stands on its own, a tragedy on an intimately human scale that helps give context to the greater disasters. Pre-plague, a swollen appendix was a quick operation and a small scar; post-plague, it’s certain, infuriating death.


16. His “friends” amputate and cauterize a guy’s legs in The Ruins (2008)
In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo saves Luke Skywalker from freezing to death on the ice planet Hoth by stuffing him into the corpse of a freshly dead tauntaun. Mad magazine’s subsequent movie parody addresses this event with Han asking a medical droid, “Did being out in that frigid cold all night do him any damage?” “No,” the droid responds, “but some idiot covered him with animal guts! That did damage!” This comic scenario comes to mind when watching The Ruins, in which a bunch of not-very-bright, extremely unlucky tourists wander into the wrong area and wind up imprisoned by natives atop a Mayan temple, where something dangerous and faintly ridiculous stalks them. After one of their number descends down a shaft in the middle of the temple, falls, and breaks his back, vines attack his numbed legs during the night, and the group’s default leader decides the legs need to be amputated. Even though they lack basic surgical tools or experience, they break the bones in his legs, saw his legs loose with a hunting knife, and cauterize the stumps with a heated cooking pan. While these are supposed to be the good guys, ostensibly trying to help their friend, the sequence is more grisly than anything the film’s actual villain accomplishes, and it’s fairly improbable that anyone, even in desperation, would think the cure is better than the ailment in this case. Surprisingly, their victim survives the makeshift surgery-slash-torture, but it’s a relief when the film’s antagonist gets him before his buddies can think of any new ways to assist him.

17. James Franco cuts off his own arm in 127 Hours (2010)
When hiker Aron Ralston got his arm pinned under a boulder and was trapped for days in a narrow canyon in a remote, little-traversed area of Utah, he ultimately had two choices: leave his arm behind or die. Danny Boyle’s stylish 127 Hours tells his story, walking through the ordeal in grueling, hour-by-hour detail, then showing, in brief but shudder-inducingly memorable detail, how Ralston (played by James Franco) makes his choice and amputates his own arm with the extremely limited materials he has within reach. It’s a triumph-of-the-human-will story, and Boyle doesn’t linger on the more lurid details, but that makeshift surgery is still the moment of the film that most stands out, particularly when Franco has to saw through a taut nerve, and the howling background score does all the screaming for him.


18. Bruce Willis yanks out his own teeth in 12 Monkeys (1995)
Nobody likes going to the dentist. The Running Man proved this. And that episode of Louie where C.K. gets mouth-raped by a leering Stephen Root while under anesthetic drove the point home: Dentists are bad news. Better to take matters into your own hands, like Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys. Woozy—and possibly insane—from being pitched back and forth in time repeatedly, Willis attempts to free himself from the clutches of the shadowy futuristic overlords who keep dispatching him into the past to stop a nasty global epidemic from wiping out most of humanity. Believing they’ve planted a tracking device in his molars, Willis locks himself in a bathroom and yanks out his own teeth. Much of the nastiness takes place offscreen, but Willis’ bloody mouth in the next scene signals the extent of his self-mutilation. Still, it was probably better than a trip to the dentist. At least he didn’t have to shift around a waiting room for 40 minutes listening to Seals & Crofts and flipping through an old Golf Magazine.

19. The villain stitches up his gruesome cheek wound in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
In possibly the most gruesome scene from Guillermo Del Toro’s incredible, “Is this really okay for kids?” fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, villain Sergi López, who has had the edge of his mouth slashed open, stands in front of a mirror and stitches it up himself. His winces are almost as tough to hear as the surgery is tough to watch, even though his character, the ruthless Captain Vidal, deserves every ounce of punishment he gets.


20. Arnie plucks out his own eyeball in The Terminator (1984)
It’s easier to watch amateur surgery when the patient is a killer robot who doesn’t flinch while driving an X-Acto knife into his skin, but it’s still pretty gross. (Do robots count as civilians, anyway?) Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his greatest role ever, plays The Terminator with icy grace—you might call it robotic—even as he’s slicing into his own arm, then plucking out his damaged eyeball. Luckily, ol’ Termie doesn’t need a replacement, and he only does a little bit of bleeding. Rather than a suture, he just pops on some sunglasses. If only real-people eye surgery were so simple.