Hey, Hollywood, Leave the Bullet Alone! (Why removing a bullet without training is usually a terrible idea—and unnecessary.)At one point in the movie comedy The Green Hornet (2011), the Hornet (Seth Rogen) gets shot in the shoulder. He can’t go to the hospital or his identity will be found out. So, in true Hollywood style, he clears off the kitchen table and tells his friends to get a spatula and a knife. The spatula is to bite down on; the knife is to remove the bullet.

One touch from the knife and he yelps in pain and tells his friends to take him to the hospital instead.

That’s one of the more realistic on-screen surgeries I’ve seen. But if you’re dealing with a gunshot wound in real life, here’s what the movies never tell you: Most of the time, the bullet doesn’t really matter.

Why Removing the Bullet Is Usually a Horrible Idea

In Hollywood, when a hero gets shot, everyone obsesses about the bullet. It’s their main focus. Once it’s out, everything’s fine.

In real life, fuggedaboutit. The bullet has already done its damage. It’s true that leaving it in might increase the risk of infection, but unless you see the bullet directly or know you feel it, and it comes out very easily, you’re going to cause far more damage poking and prodding—and still very likely not get it. Here are the problems you’ll probably face:

  • You’ll not be sure the exact direction the bullet entered the body or how far it went, so you’ll not know where it is.
  • If you poke it, it will move.
  • If you use an instrument to try to remove it, the bullet will just slip out of your grasp, going even deeper.
  • If the bullet has damaged, say, a blood vessel, getting it out is not going to make the vessel better, but poking may definitely make it worse.
  • If the bullet has gone beyond the flesh and has entered the abdomen, chest, or skull, you obviously can’t dig that out.

The fact is, many people live a long, productive life with one or more bullets or pieces of shrapnel embedded in their flesh.

Click here to learn some better things to do than remove the bullet.

“But It’s Just a Shoulder Wound!”

While I’m at it, here’s another problem I have with movie gunshot scenes. The good guy gets shot in the shoulder, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. It’s just one of those flesh wounds.

But let me till you, there are huge blood vessels around the shoulder and collarbone. If they’re not damaged, fine. But if they are, that’s life-threatening. Bleeding can be severe.

In the absence of professional medical help, the only thing you can do is apply direct pressure to try to stop the bleeding or maybe even stick a finger deep in the wound: If you feel a pulse or throbbing press on that area.

You could try some QuikClot or Celox if you have it, although those quick-clotting agents don’t work if the blood is flowing rapidly. So pressure, then QuikClot.

Again, don’t dig for the bullet. Yes, the person may die, but digging will only increase the odds of that.

Does any of this surprise you, or were you already wise to Hollywood’s shenanigans?

Next week, I’ll talk about a related question I get asked often: Will I teach you how to perform surgery? Subscribe below to be notified when that post is published.

This is part 3 of my gunshot wound series. See the previous installments here:

  1. What to do first when someone gets shot
  2. What to do next when no help is coming

Photo: “silver bullet,” Flickr/Ed Schipul, shared via CC BY-SA 2.0.