By Susie Neilson
Earlier this week, the Guardian published a video of rapper Yasiin Bey demonstrating a force-feeding procedure that Guantanamo Bay Prison inmates on hunger strike undergo. The video shows Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, gasping and writhing in pain as someone in scrubs attempts to insert a feeding tube up his nose. With more than 4 million YouTube views as of this writing, the video has become the latest symbol of the United States’s problematic treatment—some say torture—of Guantanamo prisoners. Setting aside, for a moment, the moral implications, let us consider the visceral ones: What can the procedure do to your health?
For starters, it can kill you, says Dr. Steven Miles a practicing physician and founder of the Doctors Who Torture accountability project.
Here’s how the procedure is supposed to work: You take something called a nasogastric feeding tube, and you insert it through the nose and drop it into the esophagus. That allows doctors to pump liquid nutrients directly into the stomach. But the human throat has two passageways, the esophagus, and the trachea, or upper airway. For a feeding tube to successfully drop into the esophagus, the epiglottis—a flap above the trachea--has to be covering the trachea. Otherwise, the tube will drop into the trachea and right into the patient’s lungs.
“That’s the point where starts gasping and saying, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ And that’s what happens when you get an uncooperative person,” Miles says.
Swallowing closes the epiglottis, so Miles typically instructs his patients to sip water while their feeding tubes are inserted. But in the Guardian video, “there’s nobody giving sips of water through a straw, guiding the tube into his stomach. There’s nobody telling him to swallow now, swallow now, swallow now,” he says.