Tuning The Curious Harp
This variable composition of man’s body hath made it as an instrument easy to distemper; and, therefore, the poets did well to conjoin music and medicine in Apollo, because the office of medicine is but to tune this curious harp of man’s body and to reduce it to harmony. So, then, the subject being so variable hath made the art by consequent more conjectural; and the art being conjectural hath made so much the more place to be left for imposture.
—Francis Bacon, from Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, Divine and Humane. To the King. At London. Printed for Henrie Tomes, and are to be sould at his shop at Graies Inne Gate in Holborne. Anno Domini 1605
I went in for my annual tune-up last week ( a ritual Inez instituted, doubtless keen to know how much longer she’ll have to put up with me: left to my own devices, I avoid doctors like the plague). My GP, a well-padded Edinburgh native of my own age, with well-developed tastes in cigars, single-malt whisky and willowy young men [Not that there’s anything wrong with that-Ed.], went through the same charade he’s been going through for over a decade.
Looking through my file, holding up x-rays to the light, examining blood test results, liver function tests and the rest of it, all the while making tutting, clucking noises, as though he didn’t like what he saw. Finally, he put the file down, gazed at me sorrowfully and said: “I’m afraid you’re going to die…”
I know my part well enough by now and don’t mind playing it–I’m fond of the old bastard: “When?”
“Weelll…I’d say about 30 or 40 years from now…” Cue: roars of laughter. After assuring me that I was as healthy as a plough-horse, pouring me a single-malt with some unpronounceable name–Glen Milla an Haez’ochstraa or some such haggis-basher’s name–lighting our cigars and settling back in our seats, I asked him if he tried that little joke on other patients. “Are ye daft, man? No, no, no…I know you’ve a taste for gallows humour, but if I tried that on most of my patients, I think they’d have a coronary infarction on the spot.”
Curious, I asked him how often he really had to deliver the worst news of all.
“Not very, thank the Lord. I don’t mind telling you, I usually take the cowards’s way out, if I can; you know, give them the ‘well, these results are ambiguous but I have some concerns and I’d like you to see a specialist’ and so on and so forth. It’s not very creditable, is it?… but the few times I’ve had to, when I couldn’t, in all conscience palm them off…well, it took me weeks to recover. One feels so useless and guilty…”, he held both hands out, palm up and shrugged in the universal gesture of helplessness.
“Anyway, what about you? Need anything? Pain-killers? Tranquilisers?” I took both because I like to have them in the house, just in case. As I was leaving, I asked after his most recent young companion. He looked a bit forlorn and said: “Gone, I’m afraid. He’s off to pastures new. Nobody loves an old quack…”.
“I love you,” I said and kissed his bearded cheek [In an ironic and totally butch fashion…no, really-Ed.]). “Well, that’s no bloody use to me, is it?”, “Because I’m married?” [And totally not gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that-Ed.]. He shook his head and looked me up and down in mock-astonishment: “Because you’re too fucking old, laddie…too fucking old”. I left him chuckling wheezily and telling me to ring him so we could go for a drink. Cheeky bastard called me ‘Pops’…
Contrast him with another doctor I attended as a patient about 20 years ago. I’d helped a friend move a baby grand piano and had done something to my back. My friend urged me to see a doctor. I told him I didn’t have a doctor, not having needed one for years. “Go and see mine. He’s only around the corner.”
So I did. My back was killing me and I anticipated getting some industrial-strength analgesics from the quack. At his office, his receptionist had me fill in a form and bade me wait. Eventually, I was ushered into the doctors examination room, told to remove my shirt and lie down on the table where I was subjected to a regimen of questions, pulling, poking, prodding and pinching; then I was told to put my shirt back on.
“Well, Mr. Al-Adwani, I can’t find anything to cause alarm. I’d say you’re in excellent shape. Probably a twisted ligament; clear up by itself.”
“But the pain is quite excruciating. Can I have some pain-killers?”
Instead of answering, he buried his nose in my file (all one sheet of it) and said, “I see that you’re currently unemployed”, “Self-employed,” I said. He obviously thought the two were synonymous. “Yes, yes…you’re clearly a fit man, a graduate, I see…I suggest that you join the Metropolitan Police Force…”. “Couldn’t I just have some pain-killers instead?”, I bleated. “Not required. Your pain isn’t serious and I don’t believe in prescribing unnecessarily…”
Don’t you love these bastards who find other people’s pain easy to bear and have the courage to admit it? I should have punched him in the mouth and when he complained, told him his pain ‘wasn’t serious…that it would clear up by itself ‘. See how he liked it. But I just turned on my heel, called him a useless wanker and left his office.
Later, I told my pal that his doctor was not only a useless bastard but had the most unorthodox palliative for back-pain that I’d ever come across.
“What if I’d broken my leg? I expect he’d recommend I join the Parachute Regiment.” It turned out the quack had been a police surgeon for 20 years before being turfed out for conduct unbecoming a quack or something. Apparently, he prescribed the Metropolitan Police Force for a variety of ailments. Could have been worse, though.
I could have had Harold Shipman, whose prescription for back-pain was probably the same as his prescription for everything else: a 6 ft hole in the ground. Or Dr. Fagon, who, in the 17th century, wiped out almost the entire French royal family in a fortnight while treating them for measles. The lone survivor of Fagon’s brutal regime of bleeding, emetics and violent purges was the infant Louis XV, whose nurse hid him away.
Or Dr. Rolando Sanchez of Tampa, Florida, who amputated the healthy right foot of one William King, instead of the gangrenous left foot (Universal Community Hospital later revealed that it had implemented a ‘new system’ to ensure no repeat: in future, the word ‘no’ would be written in indelible marker on all the limbs that were not to be amputated).
Or ‘Dr’ Mohammed Saeed of Bradford, whose bogus Pakistani degree was accepted by the NHS, which then allowed him to practice unsupervised. His laughable ineptitude–prescribing shampoo to be taken internally, dispensing creosote for toothache, sleeping pills to be taken 3 times a day and cough mixture to be rubbed into the skin–went unremarked for over 30 years. Or Dr. Crippen. Or Dr. Moriarty. Or Dr. Hannibal Lechter.
All in all, my doctor is a good egg. However, I’d be surprised if any of you had no disagreeable (or agreeable, for that matter) memories of medical practitioners to draw on for this week’s task: poems about doctors or related themes.
Now, take a deep breath and cough…no, no..come back…I said ‘cough’, not ‘off’..yes, I’m sure it hurts…that’s a very sensitive part of the body…let’s get you an ice-pack…