Robert McLaren:
The Limitless Man

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Robert “Jock” McLaren (center) was one hard-core veterinarian. Australian War Memorial photo.

As a species, we are enthralled with seeing people explore their limits. Sometimes it is in the small things. “Would you rather do this by mouth or take a shot?” I will not infrequently query at work.

Some folks will ask for a shot because they are in a hurry or want to get better faster. Others are not in such a rush and make a reasoned decision to take it slower. Then, there are the beefy 21-year-old college guys who get a little weepy and ask if they can call their moms and talk about it. That’s frankly just pathetic.

Many times when discussing hard medical things to come, I have had patients say, “Oh, I could never do that.” I beg to differ. Oftentimes folks just need to be properly incentivized.

It is amazing what the human animal is capable of if there is simply no alternative. Friday runs at Airborne school, 61 days of institutionalized pain and deprivation during the Ranger course, and the horrors of Hell Week during BUD/S that produces baby Navy SEALs are all designed to explore and define a person’s limits. Each institution is carefully crafted to motivate people to quit. Most commonly, a person’s limitations are defined by their circumstances.

In jump school, it is silly stuff like a funny hat and a shiny pin to put on your uniform. However, if there is a threat to a child, then suddenly, that petite 117-pound mom becomes the tactical equivalent of a raging grizzly bear. As the timeless axiom goes, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it is rather the size of the fight in the dog. It really does all come down to motivation.

Jock McLaren (left) is shown here in 1945 touring his old POW camp.

The Problem

The vermiform appendix is a most curious organ. Vermiform means “worm-like.” The appendix is a finger-like blind pouch that sprouts off of the cecum at the junction between the small and large intestines. For ages, we thought the appendix was just an afterthought, something that God inadvertently left in there while He was distracted by something else. In recent years we have come to appreciate that the appendix likely serves as a beneficial reservoir for good gut bacteria. It seems God actually never gets distracted.

The problem is that the appendix is bad to get clogged up and infected. Appendicitis is one of the most common indicators of emergency surgery. In 2015, there were 11.6 million cases of appendicitis and 50,100 deaths worldwide. If your appendix gets ripe, that thing has to come out. Now hold that thought.

Surgical procedures are tough enough with the proper tools under controlled
circumstances. Jock McLaren had to make do with slightly less.

The Manliest Man in the World

Born in Scotland, Robert Kerr “Jock” McLaren served as a grunt in Europe during World War I. After the war, Jock immigrated to Queensland, Australia, studied to become a veterinarian, and settled down to make a life for himself. When Australia was dragged into World War II, Dr. McLaren volunteered to go off and do his bit yet again.

During one engagement with the Japanese in 1942, Jock McLaren was captured and remanded to the hellish Changi POW camp in Singapore. The Japanese viewed captured soldiers with particular disdain and typically tried to work and starve them to death. McLaren escaped in short order and, upon his recapture, was transported to another ghastlier camp in Borneo.

Jock escaped yet again along with a Chinese comrade named Johnny Funk and trekked 270 miles across the Pacific, hopping from island to island in a hollowed-out log. Once they arrived on the island of Mindanao, they realized that the Philippines had fallen to the Japanese … and that Jock McLaren had developed appendicitis. With the Japanese actively hunting for them, Jock now had a hard decision to make.

Equipped solely with a razor blade, two spoons, and a hand mirror, Jock McLaren removed his own appendix. He sort of sterilized his equipment by boiling water in a rice pot over a campfire. The operation took four and a half hours without anesthetic. He closed the wound with plant fibers harvested from the surrounding jungle. Two days later, he was on his feet and evading the Japanese yet again. Soon thereafter, McLaren was fighting alongside Philippine guerillas.

Jock McLaren commandeered an antiquated 26-foot whaling boat he christened The Bastard, festooned it with pilfered mortars and machine guns, and used the vessel to terrorize occupying Japanese troops. Despite a hefty bounty on his head, McLaren survived the war. Of his surgical ordeal in the jungle, he later opined, “It was hell, but I came through all right.” I suppose it really all comes down to your motivation.

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