An Irishwoman’s Diary on the hiccups

 Most hiccups are caused by eating or drinking too fast, drinking too much alcohol, or stress. Photograph: Nicole Taionescu/iStock Most hiccups are caused by eating or drinking too fast, drinking too much alcohol, or stress. Photograph: Nicole Taionescu/iStock

Most hiccups are caused by eating or drinking too fast, drinking too much alcohol, or stress. Photograph: Nicole Taionescu/iStock Most hiccups are caused by eating or drinking too fast, drinking too much alcohol, or stress. Photograph: Nicole Taionescu/iStock

 

The tearful eulogy had just been given and the congregation was silently contemplating the tribute. Sporadic sniffles could be heard. Then someone hiccupped. So loudly that it seemed to echo around the church. People shuffled in their seats and silence descended again. Until another squawking hiccup rang out, and someone tittered. The priest jumped to his feet and began his final prayers before the subsequent volley of hiccups could be heard. Reader, I know this because I was the hiccupper.

Mortifying as it was, at least I knew the hiccups would eventually cease. But for one fraught moment I wondered what I would do if the hiccupping didn’t stop? Ever.

This was the fate of poor Charles Osborne. The Iowan farmer hiccupped continuously for 68 years, accidentally finding his way into the Guinness Book of Records because of his affliction.

The hiccupping started in 1922, following an entanglement with a pig.

He told People magazine that he had been hanging the 350 lb hog for butchering when he fell. He felt nothing but later learned that he had burst a tiny blood vessel in his brain.

Mr Osborne tried every cure going, even travelling as far as Alaska for help, but the hiccups continued for decades.

At one stage he estimated that he had received some 4,000 letters from people advising him on how to stop the hiccups

At first, he hiccupped about 40 times per waking minute, but it later settled down to a steady 20 per minute.

It didn’t stop the pig farmer in his everyday activities. He was already married when the hiccupping started but, when that marriage ended, the brave Mr Osborne courted and wed his second wife in between bouts of hiccupping.

The father of eight also worked as a farm machinery salesman and auctioneer while dealing with a small measure of fame. At one stage he estimated that he had received some 4,000 letters from people advising him on how to stop the hiccups. He was probably polite at first when people asked him if he had ever tried drinking from the opposite side of the glass, standing on his head, or holding his breath, but it is reported that he gave a curt “tried that” to such suggestions in later years.

A doctor who took a special interest in his case in the late 1970s told him the fall had destroyed a small area in his brain stem that inhibited the hiccup response.

Then, for no apparent reason, the hiccupping stopped when he was 96.

And – oh, cruel world – just as he was wondering what he would do with all his spare time, he died a year later.

While there have been other cases of chronic hiccupping, no one has ever come close to beating Mr Osborne’s – ahem – breath-taking record.

Hiccups have embarrassed people during job interviews, speeches, news-reading and weather forecasts, and not everyone handles them with equanimity

There was a case of a musician in Britain, Christoper Sands, who hiccupped for about three years until doctors discovered that a tumour in his brain stem was causing the reaction. The hiccups ceased when the tumour was removed.

But most hiccups are caused by eating or drinking too fast, drinking too much alcohol, or stress.

The hiccupping sound comes after the diaphragm spasms, sucking air into the lungs and forcing the epiglottis to shut suddenly.

Hiccups have embarrassed people during job interviews, speeches, news-reading and weather forecasts, and not everyone handles them with equanimity.

So hats off to young Ethan Hall for his achievement. He became a global sensation in 2015, aged just seven, when he was stricken with a bout of hiccups as he launched into the Australian national anthem at an Adelaide baseball game. He battled on bravely and the video went viral. It did his singing career no harm at all and he went on to present a solo show From Hiccups to Broadway. In November the now 10-year-old fronted a fundraising concert for drought-stricken farmers in Adelaide.

So, a hurricane of hiccups could boost your career if they come at the right time. Charles Osborne wasn’t so lucky. Of course, he would never have been heard hiccupping with gay abandon during a funeral.

Once he realised the hiccups were going nowhere, he learned a technique from the Mayo Clinic on how to suppress most of the noise.

But people still held out hope that he could be cured. One thoughtful friend even discharged a gun behind him in a bid to scare away the hiccups. “It scared me some,” he recalled, “but it didn’t scare the hiccups out of me.”

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