No, dear reader, this is not about covid — although in some respects you could argue it could be. As my final blog for 2020 — a year when most of us will have reflected on medical matters more than we usually do — it seems an appropriate choice. For those of my readers with medical backgrounds, it is a familiar reminder of an experience most of us had during the early years of our training.
In my case, after beginning medicine in 1954, the next 2-3 years were stimulating, but also “Interesting.” I use that word to refer to the immense anxiety many students experience after reading even little bits of their medical textbooks. For younger readers, I should explain that in those days “textbooks” were those old-fashioned things pictured below. They were printed on paper and enclosed in hard covers. Most wee heavy and ran to more than 1000 pages. One of the photos shows the paediatric bible of the time that I received as a prize. I used to say that getting a free book was what persuaded me to choose paediatrics as my specialty. Later, one of the authors of the next edition, Henry Barnett, inscribed my copy. He and I were students at the London School of Hygiene in the mid-60s.
The pages in these books described the 100s upon 100s of things that could go wrong in our bodies. Consequently, many students soon became convinced they were experiencing — or would eventually experience — at least one of these maladies. After all, a single medical textbook (to say nothing of the dozens of texts dealing with specialties like neurology, nephrology, or, in my case, paediatrics), covered every disorder known at the time. Ranging from genetic conditions, to metabolic disorders, to trauma, the chances of not contracting at least one of them seemed slim.
The question was then — and still is– how could we possibly not have at least one of these conditions? Even for those who were poor at statistics, it was evident that the odds were heavily stacked against us. Chance alone could have inflicted us with all manner of diseases beginning with those with exotic names, e.g., Kwashiokor, Hirschprungs, Tsutsugamushi or Dengue fever. As well, of course, there were/are an unbelievable number of more mundane, less colourful diseases: Parkinsons, Graves, Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, hundreds of cancers, thousands of infectious diseases, and a host of congenital malformations and other genetic conditions. The list seems almost endless.
How is it I did not succumb to more of these? I did my share. I had, what in retrospect, was thought to be mumps encephalitis. This resulted in a complete loss of hearing in my left ear. I had resulting polio, resulting in a weak ankle and right shoulder (and a long happy marriage — I leave that for you to figure out); benign prostatic hypertrophy with a post op complication I shudder to describe; surgery for angina resulting in a stent; a hiatus hernia treated with lots of meds; and MGUS. (I include this, potentially the most serious, despite the fact that few know what it is.)
Finally, I have had many injuries from car doors, me looking the wrong way at traffic, tripping on roots, falling off a bike, roller skating into a parked car, being pushed down stairs, and climbing on structures I should have been smart enough to avoid. These events may have prompted my decision to serve as founding editor of the journal, Injury Prevention. Unfortunately, that did not seem to have prevented these traumas from occurring. I continue to get injured. But at least I have not (yet) experienced more of the about 28,774 other illnesses and disorders we know to exist.
PS- No, I don’t believe in miracles. But this — not getting all the diseases in the books — does seem like one worth endorsing if we could, n’est-ce pas?