‘People tend to think of brain surgeons as being very dextrous,’ the neurosurgeon replied, ‘but it’s the plastic surgeons and microvascular surgeons who do that meticulous stuff… The rest of us just go gardening.’
When I was at university 20 years ago the best parties were thrown by the medical students. This was not just because of their work hard, play hard mentality, but also down to not knowing what receptacle you’d be drinking from at the end of the night. I remember at the time finding at hard to believe that these people would soon be saving lives on a daily basis; but it was true then, and – with the very future of the NHS under threat – it’s surely just as true today.
In reminding yourself of the deep humanity that underlies all aspects of the medical profession, you would do well to start with Gavin Francis’ excellent book Adventures in Human Being. Through a series of essays – wandering from head to foot, just like an anatomy textbook – Francis illuminates the different parts and organs that make up the human body, and gives a fascinating history lesson on not only their medical history but also their wider place in society. The book touches on subjects as diverse as Greek mythology, crucifixion and fairy tales, and whilst I was aware of some of them, there were many more that were new to me. As referenced in Francis dedication, this is a book tailor-made ‘for life’s enthusiasts‘.
But what gives the book real heart is when Francis draws on his own experience as a junior doctor and GP. He describes particular cases (whilst also doing so in such a way to maintain patient confidentiality), and the ways in which sympathetic and skilful treatment can permanently change an individual’s life. I found the chapter on the heart especially moving; in it, Francis describes a strange phenomenon known as ‘pump-head’, experienced by patients after they have been hooked up to a heart bypass machine which artificially carries out the circulation and oxygenation of their blood:
‘Many are violent as they come round; security guards have to hold them down as they are sedated with powerful antipsychotic medication. Some are merely quiet, ‘not themselves’… as if they have to grow re-accustomed to their bodies. Some become inappropriate and disinhibited… [with] stories of vicars making ribald jokes and genteel ladies issuing foul-mouthed curses.’
No-one knows for sure what causes ‘pump-head’, although Francis suggests a number of possible theories. In the end, he settles on what for me is perhaps the most satisfying answer: ‘bypass machines have been in use for more than sixty years, but they still can’t closely mimic a natural pulse from the heart. It may be that the heart’s internal rhythm is essential to our well-being: our brains, and our sense of self, may depend on it.’
Is that also why art and music can have such a profound effect on our moods? Both the beat of a drum and iambic pentameter mimic that sound which is always with us but which we learn not to hear. There’s little doubt that human body is a wonderful thing; and we should remind ourselves that this remarkable machine is one we carry around with us every day of our lives.