God and the doctor


I love my textbook. It’s not often I say that, so I should explain. The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine is a lifesaver for hundreds – no – thousands of harried medical students in their clinical years. Small enough to fit into a pocket or shoulder bag, it’s just about perfect for slipping out under the desk when the consultant has just asked you about the three main causes of hypercalcaemia. But that’s not why I love it.

I love it because I was expecting to hate it, and then I opened it and was confronted not just by medical text but by poetry. Yes, real actual poetry. Page 14 conjures Macbeth to console the tired junior doctor on call: “Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day”, while page 389 gives us a taste of Sherlock Holmes: “I see you have been hunting bushbuck in the Eastern Cape again, Mr S–. This eschar is the tell-tale tache noire of typhus.” This is how a textbook should be: bringing hope and inspiration and a good giggle in the most jaded moments.

This dreary Monday morning I really didn’t fancy talking to anyone, let alone patients, but page 14 brought respite (it’s a good page). “Patients are sources of renewal, not just devourers of your energies.” So, with that in mind, I went to see Mrs A.

Mrs A was sitting on the side of her bed in the respiratory ward, a beautiful orange scarf over her long grey hair. She told me about the pain in her chest and the way her heart beats strangely, and how she’s breathless all the time. “My heart isn’t good”, she said. “I think I’ll see Christmas, and then I’ll be done”. “Is there anyone at home?”, I asked. “No”, she replied. “All alone, apart from God and the doctor”.

Mrs A’s story shouldn’t really have brought me renewal, but somehow just the fact of talking to her, knowing that this is the meaning of my day-to-day, brought hope. If God and the doctor are all Mrs A has, well – I have no hope of being God, so I’d better become a damn good doctor.