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Friday, 31 October 2014

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Meet the man who was born back to front

FROM the outside Ron Lithgow looks like any other man of his age... probably younger. Well groomed, reasonably fit and an animated conversationalist.

But from the inside, well that’s a whole different story, for Ron is the back-to-front man – his internal organs are not where they ought to be.

This very rare condition, known as situs inversus totalis, means Ron’s organs appear “flipped” – a perfect mirror image of what they should be. It is a complete right-to-left reversal of the organs of the chest and abdomen.

Ron, now 84, has suffered no ill effects from this life-long condition: indeed he has had a bit of fun with it over the years, proving a regular subject of bafflement to doctors and medics puzzled at wielding their stethoscopes and not finding a heartbeat! As a young soldier he even made a bob or two out of it....

Ron, of Springfield Grove, High Meadows, Whitehaven, was eight before he discovered that, from the inside anyway, he was “a bit different” to other lads.

The revelation came when his class at Crosthwaite School were called into the headmaster’s office, one by one, for a medical examination by the school doctor.

“It was Dr Henderson and Nurse Berry, and the doctor said to me ‘your heart is on the opposite side’. I wasn’t sure what he meant or how significant it was, but I didn’t worry about it. The anomaly hadn’t not been picked up at birth; my mother certainly didn’t know about it. I was one of 11 children in the family and in those days if you were born healthy and were breathing and they could get sixpence for you off the UAB then all was considered well!

“When they told my teacher, Miss Hardingham, she just joked: ‘Well I think his head is back-to-front too!’ and everybody had a laugh at my expense. It didn’t bother me. I was always healthy and as a child all I caught was the measles.’’

Ron was told that cases like his were one in 90 million. Rare indeed. There is no explanation for the phenomenon, although one doctor told his mother it may be that he had been going to be an identical twin and the other one had died. His parents, Richard and Mary Lithgow, had 11 children, seven boys and four girls. Ron was the seventh boy and is now one of five brothers still alive.

When he was approaching 18, Ron was called up for the Army and had to go to Carlisle for a medical to check if he was fit to serve. That was in March 1946 – and Ron made nobody the wiser about his interesting condition.

“I was stripped to my undies, lying on a bench, and the doctor moved his stethoscope up and down my body. Then he turned me over and did the same again. He had a worried look on his face. I was getting cold by this time so threw him a hint to ‘try the other side doc’.

“He jumped for joy and called all the other doctors round to come and have a look!’’

Ron was sent to Edinburgh to join the Black Watch. His older brother Cyril had been conscripted as a Bevin Boy, working down the coalmines of the Northumbrian coast. Ron did his army training at Perth where the former Pullars of Perth factory was being used as a barracks. When the doctor there learned of Ron’s condition he would send him out as a ‘test’ for his colleagues in other medical centres in the area. If they detected Ron’s organ reversal the doctor would promise to buy them a drink, but if they failed then they would have to do the buying, all night!

“The driver that took me to these various places got paid 2/- and I got 2/6d for going and we got another 2/6d for our tea, so that was grand,’’ he says.

Ron had signed with the Army for a seven-year term and spent four of them at Brunswick (Braunschweig) in Germany. He was there at the time of the Berlin airlifts when the Allies delivered supplies to the people of West Berlin after the Soviet blockade.

After a job in admin, Ron decided to sign up for some medical training with the Royal Army Medical Corps to become a hygiene assistant. He did nurse training at Hamburg Hospital and later studied at the Army School of Health in Ash Vale in Surrey. After qualifying and (with his interest in tropical diseases) hoping for a posting to the Far East, Ron was disappointed to be sent somewhere far less exotic – Aldershot Army Hospital. But there was a bonus, for it was while working there that he met his bride-to-be Sheila, who was from Frimley Green. They married in 1953. and Ron left the Army soon after.

He returned to Whitehaven where he and Sheila bought a house at 26 Quay Street where they lived quite happily until it was commandeered for demolition. By now Ron had joined the workforce at Sellafield as a process worker in the plutonium production plant, initially in the separation plant. Of course it meant having another medical and after undergoing chest x-rays when the doctor was heard to call out: ‘Nurse, what the heck have you done with this film.’ I had to say, ‘No, it’s me doctor, I’m back to front!’ Every time they got a new piece of medical kit down at Sellafield it was ‘send for Lithgow’ to try it out!”

With his medical background, Ron decided to train to become a chiropodist and studied in his own time, qualifying when he was 23. He practised in his spare time, keeping his job on at Sellafield where he worked for 36 years, retiring in 1988 when he was 61. During all that time he had only had 13 weeks off sick.

Ron continues to enjoy his retirement and enjoys singing, as a tenor, with the Whitehaven Male Voice Choir where he has been a member for many years. He and Sheila have four sons, one daughter and 11 grandchildren... and all their organs are the right way round!

Normal human development results in an asymmetrical arrangement of the organs within the chest and abdomen. Typically, the heart lies on the left side of the body (levocardia), the liver and spleen lie on the right, and the lung on the left has two lobes while the lung on the right has three lobes.

However, in some people, like Ron, the organs of the chest and abdomen are arranged in the exact opposite position: the heart is on the right (dextrocardia), as is the two-lobed lung, and the liver, spleen, and three-lobed lung are on the left. Yet because this arrangement, called situs inversus, is a perfect mirror image, the relationship between the organs is not changed, so functional problems rarely occur.

What causes it is unclear and it is thought that many factors may be involved in causing situs inversus. Rarely, it can run in families, but most often it is an isolated and accidental event occurring in an individual for the first time in a family.

Have your say

what an interesting tale!

Posted by Marra on 23 November 2012 at 18:50

Excellent article with surprising information mixed into Ron's story. I wish The Westmorland Gazette had this kind of informative writing.

Posted by John on 22 November 2012 at 17:39

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