The other night I was sitting around with some friends discussing the sort of thing college students discuss at three in the morning while avoiding chemistry homework–namely, strange mutilations of the human body. Someone told a story that sounds like an urban legend to me, but he was so sure it was true. The story goes that an obese woman felt the call of nature while on an airplane. After relieving herself in the designated cubicle, she committed the unfortunate error of flushing while still on the commode. Since airplane toilets work by suction, and since her large girth covered the entire seat opening, creating a seal, a vacuum was formed beneath her behind. The resulting pressure differential proceeded to . . . partially suck out her intestines! Yet through the timely intervention of an on-board physician, her life was spared (though she is no doubt doomed to eat lots of food rich in fiber for the rest of her life).

Now come on! Besides the fact that all toilets I’ve seen have little cushioning doohickeys between the seat and the bowl, thus creating an air space, this story just seems a little farfetched. Can you help us get to the bottom of this? Is there yet another reason why Mom was right in telling us never to sit on public toilet seats? –Bethany G., Ann Arbor, Michigan

No doubt many feel this is something they could stand not to know. However, I feel an informed public is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Having failed to renew my subscription to Weekly World News, I wasn’t current on this topic and, like you, thought the whole thing was an urban legend. In the interest of thoroughness, though, I dropped a line to folklore guru Jan Brunvand. To my surprise, he referred me to a letter by Philadelphia osteopath J. Brendan Wynne in the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 6, 1987, page 1177). Not trusting myself to paraphrase this extraordinary communication, I quote at length:

“Recently, while on a Greek-registered cruise ship moored near Vancouver, British Columbia, to accommodate the hotel overflow from Expo 86, I responded to an emergency call over the ship’s loudspeaker and was asked to administer first aid to a woman who had sustained a serious pelvic injury.

“A 70-year-old, slightly obese woman was in her cabin lying on the bunk in the right lateral recumbent position. She was alert and responding verbally but in obvious distress, moaning in pain, [sweating], and apprehensive. Protruding behind her on the bed were several feet of small intestine with [connective tissue] attached.

“The woman stated she had flushed the toilet while still seated and the suction had ‘pulled everything out.’ Apparently, her buttocks and thighs completely occluded the opening of the toilet seat, causing the full force of the vacuum to be applied to the perineal area. She kept repeating, ‘Why didn’t they warn me?'”

(The only warning was a sign near the toilet saying, “This toilet operates on vacuum system. Please do not throw any object except toilet paper.”)

“An ambulance crew responded within a few moments and transported the woman to a local hospital. I left Canada within the hour and am unaware of the final outcome of the incident.

“Whether this occurrence represents a malfunction of this particular vacuum system, or if this could occur with any vacuum type of toilet, I do not know, but it certainly bears further investigation.”

I’ll say. However, judging from the medical journals, nothing has been done about this looming menace in the nearly five years since the original report appeared. No doubt researchers fear public ridicule, not to mention flak from the vacuum-toilet interests. Well, too bad. It is time for somebody to, pardon the expression, show some guts. Meanwhile, I advise readers planning cruise vacations to look the booking agent in the eye and say, “Do you promise by the living God that made you that your toilets won’t suck out my internal organs?” If the little weasel hesitates, take your business elsewhere. It is only through eternal vigilance that we can keep these people honest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.