Field of Science

TMI Friday: The Grinch Syndrome

Last week, I blogged about the "Santa Claus" Syndrome. Taking inspiration from the "Worst ever Christmas story ever" from the "Gremlins" film, I clawed through the medical case literature to see whether there was any truth behind this story.
After much googling, I tracked down a paper entitled "The Santa Claus Syndrome", which appeared to answer all of my questions, but was locked behind a pay-wall. So I posted the awesome abstract of the paper and left it at that.
But I must have been a good little boy this year, because Santa* left me a present underneath my Christmas tree. A copy of the full paper !
So gather 'round children, you are in for a gruesome tale.

Our story begins with a 17 year old burglar who saw a tempting target of opportunity. It was in the early morning hours, the sun had not risen, and the store was empty. The doors were locked, but our enterprising thief noticed that the owners had left their chimney unguarded. I imagine a Grinch like smile crossing his face, and him rubbing his palms together. For he would not be going down that chimney to give presents, like Santa Claus. The plan was sheer elegance in its simplicity.

The paramedics found him fourteen hours later, jammed in the chimney, his hand caught in a heat vent.
You might be wondering what happens to someone when they get stuck in a chimney. I am here to give you the facts in all of their gory details.
They managed to get the burglar out of the chimney and he was immediately transported to a burns unit. His nostrils and tongue were coated with soot, and he had first and second degree burns all over his chest, abdomen and lower body. But it wasn't just the burns that were the problem for this young gentleman.
He was also covered in pressure sores. These occur at points on the body where bone is close to the surface of the skin (like your elbows, or your knees).  When you put pressure on these "bony prominences", the skin, the bone squeezes and tears at the body tissue it's pressing against.
 Effectively, the burglar's skin was been worn away, with the chimney acting as the pestle, and his very bones acting as the mortar.
The tissue around the burglars knee had already been severely damaged, and had become "Necrotic", and his hand had become infected and "gangrenous". But these weren't even his biggest problems.
His biggest problems was that there really wasn't much oxygen in that cramped chimney shaft. The oxygen levels in his blood were dangerously low. They intubated him, but his condition just kept getting worse.
He was soon suffering from "Acute respiratory distress", which happens to the cells of the lung that have suffered from so much injury that the immune system kicks into overdrive. In order to get as many immune cells as possible into the lungs, the blood vessels entering the lungs become "leaky". They leak fluid into the lungs as well as inflammatory cells, essentially flooding the lung. It's not unlike drowning.
The physicians prescribed steroids in the hope that they would bring this under control, as well as giving him antibiotics for his infection and intravenous fluid to keep him hydrated.
Yet it still got worse. The burns he had sustained, combined with the severe pressure sores and the gangrene had lead to his muscles breaking down. All muscles contain a compound known as myoglobin, which is like haemoglobin in that it stores oxygen, but only to be used for the muscles. Whilst it is useful, it is also very poisonous to the kidneys if a large amount of it enters the blood stream.
The burglars muscles had been damaged to the point that they were now leaking myoglobin into his blood, and his kidneys were now shutting down. The doctors put him on dialysis to take the pressure off the kidneys.
But his gangrene had now effectively "mummified" the patients hand, leaving it shrivelled, dried out and dead. The surgeons were forced to amputate his whole arm to prevent the spread of the gangrene.
Various parts of his "lower extremities" suffered from the burglar having been stuck so long in an upright position. The blood had flowed down to his legs under the pull of gravity, raising the pressure in his lower limbs, giving him "Compartment Syndrome".  The surgeons treated this by cutting the affected areas open so that the pressure can be relieved.
But all of this was for nought, because on the twelfth day after admission, the patient suffered from cardiac arrest and died.

The physicians who had attended this unfortunate ill fated burglar recognised that actually, people get stuck in chimneys more often than you would think. There were a number of cases reported in newspapers of people getting stuck in chimneys during burglaries, or in the process of performing pranks, many of them with fatal consequences. So the researchers devised the "Santa Claus Syndrome". These are series of specific symptoms for other physicians to watch out for if they need to treat someone who had been stuck in a chimney, so that they would have enough preparation to save their patient.
This paper was published in 1994 , and should have been a warning for us all. But housebreakers are still dying from getting stuck in chimneys.
It should be clear now that only Santa Claus is able to enter a chimney with his magic. The poor grinch is probably still stuck in some abandoned chimney in Whoville, legs swollen like melons,  skin crackling and popping from the heat, and desperately inhaling lungfuls of soot and ash.


Boglioli L. & Taff M. (1995). The Santa Claus Syndrome' Entrapment in Chimneys, Journal of Forensic Sciences, 40 (3) 499-500. DOI:
*or an interested reader of the blog, who I'm assuming wishes to remain nameless, but I wasn't really very clear on that.

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