Giving a vaccination is about the simplest medical encounter it’s possible to have, though among the most transformative. … The numbers are daunting, but there’s a spirit of anticipation and celebration in the air. Many are starting to dare to plan for a world post-Covid, and I’m tempted to share that optimism. Opening my first box of vials, I thought of a friend in Orkney, a GP who’d already vaccinated all the over-80s of his practice, and who’d begun to call in the over-70s. We met briefly in Kirkwall, outdoors, on my journey from Orkney back to Edinburgh. “How did it feel to get started?” I asked him.From https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/11/pure-liquid-hope-what-coronavirus-covid-vaccine-means-to-a-gp-doctor
It took two epidurals to deliver John. My husband asked me whether I had noticed the obstetrician stroking my thigh during labour. I hadn’t, but I knew I had hugged his arm for comfort. When he placed John at my breast he said, ‘No more babies, you have one of each now and you’ve done enough.’ It was strangely reassuring to hear him say that. He restricted my visitors and arranged that I get an extra night’s rest in my overheated hospital room that smelled of rotting grapes and wilting lilies.
The essay, which was reproduced in full by RTÉ Culture (here), is quite the indictment of how our society was/is constructed when it comes to supporting parenthood, particularly pregnancy, labour and early motherhood, and especially in relation to women’s careers. There is a very revealing flashback scene in which the author is confronted by a classmate on her first day as a law student:
‘Look around at all the women,’ he said. ‘For every one of you, there’s a man sitting home right now that didn’t get in. Most of you are going to get married and have children anyway. What a waste.’
First & foremost to say, it was such a thrill & privilege to be able to conduct – thanks to Siobhan in the department – our session in the beautiful atmosphere of the old Anatomy Building lecture theatre (as photographed so perfectly here by Fionn McCann). Everyone was most impressed … even a tad sorrowful!
Opened up with our group recitation of Yeats’ ‘Paudeen’. They’ll know it off by heart by the end of the module!
Then had quick recap from one of the group on last week’s proceedings.
Then I set the mood for this week by reading Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill’s ‘The Mermaid in the Hospital’ as translated by Paul Muldoon. (“It was the sister who gave her the wink / and let her know what was what.”)
Then, somewhat unusually, I gave a sort of lecture on anatomy as a human pursuit and its significance in medical training – based on an essay I wrote for the ‘Irish Medical Times’ years ago when the Anatomy department was moving from its charming, nineteenth century home to the shiny new Biosciences building >
The idea is that perhaps to ensure the students adopt the appropriate attitude towards the privilege that it is learning from cadaveric dissection, some civilising influence of the aesthetic on display in the old building (architecture, art, history) needs to be / is being replaced by comparable influences in the new facilities – the orientation programme, the relatives room.
Keeping it somewhat personal, I told them about an old friend, Max Aguilera-Hellweg, who sat in this very room as a first year MATURE medical student in 1998/99, but who transferred back to the USA for the rest of his degree because of a dispute with the School arising from conflicting views of his book ‘The Sacred Heart’, which he had just published the year before. I read and analysed extracts from Max’s book, highlighting how his interest in medicine arose (a photographic assignment that led to an obsession) and his resulting intense, artistic fascination with representing the most full-on images of the workings of the body as revealed by surgery.
… Far from getting sick, I felt what I can best describe as awe. Photographing my first surgery was so foreign to any of my previous experiences that I couldn’t place it. I couldn’t compare it to anything. It is one thing to know there is a spinal cord in the hollow of your back; to see one for real is altogether different…
The cardinal glow of oxygenated blood reminded me that there was a man in there. A thick, milky-white strand covering the nerve tissue that stretches from brain stem to tailbone, splitting off into minute and multitudinous nerves, producing the sensations of heat, cold, pleasure, pain; the dura of the spinal cord lay revealed. I saw the painting above my grandmother’s bed. The one I saw as a child waking up from my nap. The one of Jesus. His heart bleeding, wrapped in thorns, engulfed in flames.
I realised I was in the presence of the most intimate, most vulnerable, most inviolate thing I had ever seen. The spinal cord had never seen light, wasn’t meant to see light, and at this moment was bathed in light. My first impulse, I must confess was to spit. To defile it in some way. Bring it down to my level. I didn’t, of course, but I felt I was in the presence of something so precious, so amazing, so powerful, so pure, I couldn’t bear the intensity.
“What is that?” I asked. “What’s it made of?”
“It’s like a sausage,” the surgeon said, “with toothpaste inside.”
We discussed the heightened language and thinking here; the artistic impulse; the impact such descriptions have on a reader, particularly whether or not they can be said to have benefits for medical student readers; we debated why Max’s impulse was to spit (including wondering was it actual!); we discussed the surgeon’s disabusing and mundane reply, in terms of professional distance and general normalisation.
Where before [as photographer] I searched the eyes of a man [for his soul!], the wrinkles of his clothes, the wear and tear of his shoes, I look now in the recesses of his flesh, the colour and texture of his liver, the markings and capacity of his lungs.
We discussed our impressions of Max from the extracts we’d read and how suitable his motivations were for someone becoming a doctor. We got into a detailed discussion about empathy.
Then we read and analysed extracts from Sinéad Gleeson’s essay ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’.
We discussed how the suddenness of the migration from the Kingdom of the Well to the Kingdom of the Sick is handled (“It happened quickly, an inverse magician’s trick: now you don’t see it, now you do. From basketball and sprinting to bone sore with a limp. Hospital stays became frequent, and I missed the first three months of school four years in a row.”); the unbelievable trauma to the body and soul some treatments involve; how quickly a patient, even a young patient, become conversant if not fluent in the language spoken in the Kingdom of the Sick.
We went into some detail on the particular impact of physical difference on young people (“I got used to the limp … but gained a new self-consciousness… What I felt more than anything was overwhelming embarrassment. Ashamed of my bones and my scars and the clunking way I walked.”) and how if it’s difficult for a doctor to properly empathise with an adult patient, it can be even more difficult when the patient is a young person or a child. (Though some of them have thicker skin than others, was a point that was made.)
We discussed the clinical aspects of acne and blushing.
There are a couple of particularly harsh doctors portrayed in Gleeson’s essay, and we discussed how prevalent their behaviour might be in healthcare settings these days and whether or not efforts were being made to reduce the instances of such ignorant behaviour:
I explain this to the orthopaedic doctor, this man I’ve never met, and he does that thing I’m used to male doctors doing: he tells me I’m overreacting. A rotating blade is slicing into my flesh, but I need to calm down. When my mother starts to cry, he demands that she leave the room. Fifteen minutes later, I plead with him to stop and he finally gives up, annoyed.
On an early visit to the surgeon, to check my spine for scoliosis, I was asked to wear a swimsuit. Mortified, I cried all through the exam, and the doctor, growing impatient, threw a towel over my lower body.
‘THERE, is that better?’
It wasn’t. I was a self-conscious girl being humiliated for her sense of shame.
Perhaps understandably considering her analysis and perspective, Gleeson summarises perfectly the lop-sidedness of the relationship, particularly as it was back in the 80s:
The Doctor patient relationship had its own imbalances. I have never forgotten the sense of powerlessness in instruction: lie down, bend forward, walk for me. I have felt it counting backwards from ten under the stark lights of an operating theatre. Or when skin is sliced cleanly through. You are in someone else’s hands. Steady, competent hands – hopefully – but the patient is never in charge. The kingdom of the sick is not a democracy. And every orthopaedic doctor who examined me during those years was male.
We discussed the difference between Gleeson’s language / perspective and Aguilera-Hellweg’s.
A variety of analyses were put forward on this idea: “Our bodies are sacred, certainly, but they are often not ours alone… we create our own matryoshka bodies, and try to keep at least one that is just for us. But which one do we keep – the smallest or biggest?”
We noted the empathy behind her observation of another person in Lourdes hoping for a miracle: “He twitches occasionally but is otherwise motionless. There is drool on his face, and I want to say something to him but can’t.”
Also the pathos in: “This is the breakdown of bones, the slowing of a heart, the confinement of our own bodies: a being that once sprung into the world, vibrant and viscous and pulsing with life.”
Finally, we read and discussed Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s poem ‘To the Stranger Who Will Dissect My Brain’ (unpublished) and the students who spoke were extremely moved and impressed with the final description of the “exchange” that happens at the end of the poem between the remains and the (say) anatomy student: “Your brain will blaze bright,// alive and wild, and I,/ I will be the light.” Not only capturing the awe felt by medical students (& some photographers) but also the enlightenment – the final gift of the person who has donated their remains to medical education.
One student spoke about how the poem captured in a way that she could never achieve herself (and that no other language register could, perhaps) that feeling of awe that some students experience when they begin their anatomy dissections.
And to top it all off, the students were able to look around the old Anatomy Museum and get a sense of the history – betimes quite freakish and grotesque – of their studies.
An overview of maternity matters in Ireland since 1916 by Rhona O’Mahony: The Annual Hospital Reports of the 1920s have striking similarities to my own, chronicling increasing activity and inadequate resources. Unexpected money from the infamous Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes allowed for the refurbishment of a number of hospitals during the 1930s, including the NMH, but despite some recent refurbishment, the building is little changed from what it was in the 1930s.
Full article here >>>
First of all, I have chosen to look at the main themes and issues in this chapter. There are two main themes, the first is mortality and the second is the link between aging and death. Mortality is the theme which is constantly present throughout the chapter. The author uses a quote from Francis Quarles to emphasize this, ‘It lies in the power of man either permissively to hasten or actively to shorten, but not to lengthen or extend the limits of his natural life.’ He uses a personal experience to show us that everyone must die, using the example of his grandmother who died from a stroke. He tells us that her death was much the same as a lot of other people’s and ‘hardly unique’. He shows us that death happens to everyone, ‘it carried off James McCarty, it carried off my Bubbeh’.
When he speaks about mortality, there is a lack of sympathy from him. I believe that he uses the example of his grandmother to show us his humanity, because he himself has suffered through the death of someone close to him. I don’t think this attempt was successful however, or sufficient, as he still comes across as very unsympathetic. I researched who James McCarty was, as he is mentioned twice in the piece. I discovered that he was the author’s first patient, a fifty-two year old man who died of a heart attack while beside the author. As he died, he ‘roared’ out to the author, who did nothing, but realised after that McCarty was asking him to desist what was happening. He suggests later in the chapter that we should ‘eschew every bit of McCarty-like behaviour’ which shows his lack of sympathy towards the dying man looking for help and also comes across as quite judgemental of him. It is apparent from the chapter that the author himself is about the same age as James McCarty, if not older, so you would expect him to have a little more sympathy for the man.
He believes that everyone should die and should not try to prevent death. He includes a quote from Thomas Jefferson, ‘There is a ripeness of time for death, regarding others as well as ourselves, when it is reasonable as we should drop off and make room for another growth. When we have lived our generation out, we should not wish to encroach on another.’ His opinion is that it is older people’s duty to die as they should, and allow the younger generations to take over, ‘Old men must die, or the world would grow moldy, would only breed the past again.’ He says that the people who are researching gene therapy or growth hormone are faced with people who are hoping that these break-throughs will result in an extension of life span. ‘The lesson is
never learned-there will always be those who persist in seeking the fountain of youth’. He even goes as far as to say that wishing for a longer life span ‘demeans us’.
The second theme that is very prominent is the link between aging and dying. One quote which illustrates this theme is a quote from ‘a wise old lady’ who said ‘death keeps taking little bits of me’. He believes that death will occur regardless of disease, but with the presence of disease, death comes faster, ‘Aging may be said to be both independent and co-dependent in the sense that it certainly contributes to disease and may in turn be accelerated by it. But disease or no disease, the body continues to get older.’ He also believes that there is very little that can be done for an old person when they come in to a hospital. He asks us what should be done, if an old man presents with cancer. Should we treat him with debilitating chemotherapy only for him to die of something else a year later? Regarding treating old people, he says ‘Hope must always prove to be unjustified.’ In the end, they will die, of something, regardless of what they are in hospital for. This is a very true statement from him, but a negative and irrelevant one. You could also say that about a two month old baby who comes in with a disease, so his argument is unjustified.
I found that the author’s tone throughout the chapter was often very gleeful when talking about causes of death. He uses personification of the diseases, which I think gives him the tone of glee. He uses phrases such as ‘marauding power’, ‘of those so betrayed by their cerebral circulation’ and ‘suffocating the tissues of its victim.’ When speaking about pneumonia, he says ‘Pneumonia’s blitzkrieg has yet another way to kill- its putrid headquarters in the lung serves as a focus from which the murderous organisms can enter the bloodstream.’ I think he uses this personification to show us that it would be better to die. There are pages and pages in the chapter in which he simply describes the horrifying diseases and what they do to your body. He always describes the ‘worst case scenario’ making any illness seem horrific, to make us think that it would be preferable to die than to go through any of them ourselves. However, he is so gleeful when describing these diseases, it makes me think he could be exaggerating to emphasize his point, ‘If the stroke is extensive enough or if further complications ensue, such as decreased blood pressure or cardiac output due to failure or arrhythmia, recovery is prevented and the area of ischemia may actually increase. If it becomes large enough, the brain tissue begins to swell. Being compressed in the unyielding confines of the skull, a swollen brain is further damaged by being pushed up against its covering membranes and bony encasement, and part of it may actually be forced down through a fold in those membranes…….’ He always talks about the worst case scenario of all of these diseases, and tells us all the ‘gory’ details, which is why I think he has a gleeful tone.
He speaks quite critically of doctors, and their approach to treating geriatric diseases. He says that in the case of his grandmother, and because she died of two of the most common causes of death; stroke and pneumonia, while doctors read this chapter, ‘they may claim, her mode of death supports their worldview and argues for vigorous intervention to treat the named pathologies in order to prolong life. To me this is more sophistry than science.’ He is criticising even his medical readers, and patronisingly assuming he knows what they are thinking and criticises any who would disagree with him. He is concerned that doctors become ‘absorbed by the riddle of disease’ and want to solve the problem rather than do what is best for the patient and the hospital. However, he contradicts himself by saying, ‘The diagnosis of disease and the quest for overcoming it with his intellect are the challenges that motivate every specialist who is good at what he does.’ If a specialist is good, because he wants to solve the riddle of disease, then does that mean he wants not good doctors treating geriatric patients, because they have no motivation to solve the problem and will let the patients die? However, he then calls the doctors who know when to stop treating older patients ‘wise physicians,’ again contradicting himself.
His writing style at times is quite hard to follow. He jumps from one topic to another, and back again with no warning. For example, he opens talking about strokes and his grandmother. He describes strokes in detail, and the reader believes he has moved on Alzheimer’s disease, when he jumps back to talking about strokes. This happens in several different instances throughout the chapter, making it difficult to find any clear structure in the chapter, and at times, hard to follow his train of thought.
He is also hugely confident in his writing style, almost over confident, nearly forcing his opinions on his readers. He has an entire paragraph of questions beginning with, ‘Can there be any doubt…..?’ regarding to the points he has just made. He uses subtleties of language, such as the word ‘fortunately’ when telling us about the doctors that he agrees with, and ‘unfortunately’ when speaking about people who he disagrees with. There is an air of confidence throughout the whole chapter, leaving you less likely to question his ideas.
There is a small amount of humour throughout the chapter, which I believe he uses to lighten the dark descriptions of debilitating diseases he uses, as well as his pessimism of old age. For example, he tells us that ‘the bets assurance of longevity is to choose the right mother and father.’
Overall, I liked the themes and issues he chose to write about, mortality, aging and death. I disliked the tone with which he wrote about these themes, at times patronising and over confident. I liked hearing his perspective on geriatric doctors and what the right thing to do is involving elderly patients. I would like to read the rest of the piece, but I would read it critically, rather than believing it word for word, due to the apparent joy he takes in other people’s misery and his over confidence.