Doctors in north-central Vietnam used 15 cans of beer to save the life of a man suffering from alcohol poisoning and yes, you read that correctly. Nguyen Van Nhat, 48, was taken to Quang Tri General Hospital on Christmas after allegedly consuming alcoholic drinks that contained methanol, a highly toxic form of alcohol. So doctors immediately gave him three cans of beer.
Le Van Lam, head of the hospital’s intensive care unit, explained that the beer was administered in order to slow down the rate at which Nhat’s liver was processing the methanol, according to Vietnamese newspaper Tuổi Trẻ.
Essentially, there are two types of alcohol: ethanol and methanol. The former is a primary ingredient in both fermented and distilled alcoholic beverages—the stuff that makes you feel drunk in small doses and sick in large doses—although it doesn’t typically usually lead to serious poisoning unless over-consumed. The latter, on the other hand, is sometimes inadvertently produced in homemade spirits, and can cause temporarily blindness, or even death in larger doses.
Because the human liver prioritises breaking down ethanol over methanol—and there’s ethanol in beer—pumping a few brews into a patient’s system can buy some time for the doctors to perform dialysis and flush out the alcohol before the methanol is processed. Nhat was reportedly administered one can of beer every hour while recovering in Quang Tri General’s ICU. After 15 tins he’d made such a recovery that doctors were able to discharge him from the hospital. Now he's recovering at home.
While Dr Lam claims that using beer to bring alcohol-poisoned patients back from the brink of death is not a completely foreign medical concept, Quang Tri’s health department have announced that they will look into the method to see if it fits standard medical practices.
“Even if it does not conform to any medical standard,” said Tran Van Thanh, director of the health department, “this method should be scientifically studied if it has been proven effective in practice.”
It all sounds a little too good be true. So to verify it for ourselves, we reached out to VICE contributor and Australian emergency medicine registrar Matilda-Jane Oke—who confirmed that it's "absolutely plausible."
"While ethanol is now the second line antidote for methanol poisoning, it’s still used in lots of emergency departments for this problem (although we typically wouldn’t use beer as the concentration of ethanol is pretty low in it)," she said. "I think my ED still has a bottle of vodka lying around for when this happens."
Other medical figures have admitted that the unique method is recognised by certain experts within the field. Speaking to India Times, emergency physician Hans-Jörg Busch said that "the therapy with 15 cans of beer is rather unusual, but well understood. Maybe the Vietnamese colleagues had no other alcohol on hand."
The choice of beverage doesn’t matter so much as the speed with which it’s given, according to Dr Busch. “Much more important [than the kind of alcohol used],” he said, “is that the therapy is immediately initiated.”
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