Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Doctor Do-nothing

Sometimes it's not easy being a doctor ... especially when you're looking after a really sick person. Take this poor bugger I'm looking after at the moment. Firstly, it should be said, he's not frail or sickly, in fact, to look at him, you sometimes get the impression that he's eaten every pie in the shop! He's huge – certainly the biggest I've ever had to work with. And to say he's sick is not necessarily true either ... well, at least that is if you take the definition of sickness being something that can actually be cured, which in this case it can't.

Y'see, this outwardly robust, but internally corrupting fellow that I'm managing at the moment is more disabled than sick. He's got a couple of appendages which are so debilitated that there's just no way they're curable as they are. In fact, these appendages are so damaged and decaying from within, that they're threatening to spread into the other, healthier parts of his frame, and he and everyone around him are frightened, and rightly so, that they will eventually take the lot down with them.

It's really sad to see, I know. But that's the problem with being a really good doctor – people see how sad it is, and they want something done about it. What's more, you have a bit of success from time to time curing, or at least patching-up other people, and everyone wants you to turn your healing hands to more difficult jobs.

I used to wonder why it was that people held out so much hope for these poor wretches, given that you can see the disfigurement already taking hold of their withered, dying limbs, but I've come to understand that these outsiders, very often with their own corruptions and ailments, see the potential in the rest of the person's body; its health and vitality providing an optimistic contrast with the putrid bloating of the offending limbs. I guess it gives them hope; a hope with which they turn to people like me.

But what everyone, sufferer and onlooker alike, fails to understand, perhaps deliberately, fearfully, is that these afflictions are a form of corruption, and like any decay, will continue if unchecked, until there is no vital flesh remaining. It's those with similar ailments who want people like me to make a difference.

But what they don't want to know about is the truth. What they don't want to hear is that, like this poor soul who I'm working with here, the only way he's ever going to get better is to cut off the putrid limbs. To let them fall, and allow the healthy to remain so. Removing the damaged limbs will mean life to the rest - that much is certain.

But this message fails to get through most of the time, because people just can’t get past their prejudices. It never ceases to amaze me how individuals with a serious disability; an ailment which renders one or a number of limbs completely useless, are so willing to go through extended agony and heart ache; how they are willing to risk their overall health, just to maintain the outward appearance of being whole – of having all their limbs in tact. They risk years of personal pain and torment, just to try to fool people into believing that they’re OK; to avoid becoming the focus of others’ pity. But really, with that useless, obviously non-functioning limb hanging off the side … who are they really kidding?

And what of that rotting limb, once it’s removed? What will happen to it? Of course, modern science and experience tells us that to sever the limb means it'll die, but what if it doesn't? What if severing the limb, and providing it with care and nurturing actually gives it a second chance? This is a theory that myself and a lot of learned colleagues are starting to explore.

The problem is that we're running out of time. The corruption that's been working away slowly at this poor bloke for years; a low-grade infection that simmers along, causing damage, sure, but at a rate that's manageable, has recently undergone a violent outburst in one appendage, and the heat and carnage of this more or less unprecedented outbreak is literally destroying whatever goodness, whatever promise is left in its ever-weakening structures.

While everyone looks on, placing their vain hopes in my ability to nurse him back to health, this poor, proud fool is dying, and with each day that we fail to act appropriately, anything useful left in the damaged appendage, anything we can work with in order to nurse it back to health, is also dying.

People in my line of work are the ones who have it tough. We're the ones with the facts. We know what's required to save lives; what's required to build futures for living beings. But it's hard. While the World looks-on, waiting and hoping, we watch people's futures slip away down the line. If I had it my way, I'd ask the World to let us cut off the ailing appendages, and to let us begin working with what we have.

To me it makes sense. Do nothing and watch two lives die, or act swiftly and decisively to save one life ... and maybe two. It’s time for us to make some decisions; to put our prejudices aside for the good of all, and to help convince this poor man to do what we have to in order to save what's left of his horribly disfigured, disabled appendage ... before it is lost forever.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Wrapped up in books

Despite being a hideously slow reader, I really love to read books – all sorts of stuff, from crime and thrillers, to historical novels and period novels, to sci-fi fantasy, to mystic realism and I've even, on occasion, wandered into chick-lit. I love reading so much, and I wish I could manage to cram more in, but the ol', mouse-on-a-treadmill Donkey brain just doesn't work that fast (perhaps I need a bigger piece of cheese?).

I tried speed reading courses back when I was at school, but was turned-off by the smarmy, well dressed, and slickly groomed Amway-types who sold the concept like some illicit pyramid scheme, and the notion of "chunking" felt too much like some kind of travesty – using your spare, quiet time, not to slow down and relax, but to read with your brain and heart going at a hundred miles an hour. Kinda made me feel dirty ... so I let the "skill" wither and die.

But despite the slow pace, my love for reading, books and stories has never diminished, and as I sat in the sun this morning, having finished a rather plodding, but no less enjoyable tale about European settlers north of Sydney, I started to think about where books had taken me in the last six months, a period during which Donkey has managed to squeeze in quite a bit more than usual.

The great thing about books is that they can take you away from wherever you are, and plant you smack into another place, another time, or even give you an entirely new personality ... oh, and they usually help you to get more sex than you might in your real-life circumstances ... well maybe that's just me; I guess it depends on what you read.

In the last six months, I have travelled from my little, sunny, south-facing room in Lhasa to Communist Romania and Bulgaria, tracking down the hideous father vampire (who curiously had developed an interest in books himself). This journey also took me to the grand old city of Istanbul and its predecessor, Constantinople, and helped me experience the cacophonous bustle of the markets and the smells of the fishing boats and galleys as they offloaded European merchants and slaves beneath the towering and shining dome of the Sancta (and later Hagia) Sophia.

Oddly enough, I returned to Istanbul a few months later, this time experiencing the grand city in its many incarnations as seen through the eyes of its weathered, mid-twentieth century inhabitants as they looked for meaning in their changing political circumstances and the corruption which was eating its way through the halls of power. In this heart-wrenching tale, I suffered with the main character as he discovered the sense of power which comes to an individual who, having lost everything he ever thought he loved, assumes the identity of another.

Fragile mental health seems to have been a feature of my reading in the last six months. It was evident in the culture of murder which had been handed down from generation to generation as the cathedral in Southern England had been erected, destroyed and re-built over and over again. It was also a theme to disturb as I found myself, a mere school boy, stranded on a deserted island with only my peers, and where I rapidly descended to the mentality of a blood-crazed animal, with no intellectual faculty other than that of the pack, and no drive other than to hunt and kill.

More sadness later as my denial pushed my friends and colleagues further away, and I descended into the maelstrom of chronic alcoholism and the imagined love of a fine drop of red.

Genocide seems to have reared its disgusting form also; from the cold-blooded extinction of the Hawkesbury River's indigenous inhabitants by European settlers in the early nineteenth century, to the crazed ebb and flow of the Hindu and Muslim mobs in divided Gujarat. Here I watched in horror as people turned upon their friends and neighbours in an instant, be they men, women or children, and committed the most alarming and sickening atrocities.

The same disregard for human life exists on the outskirts of the megatropoles of South America, where I found myself, displaced from my rural home, with its chronic drought and starvation, in an uncaring, inhospitable slum, and watching, first with confusion and later with horror as my friends and neighbours would disappear every day, without a trace nor a care from the authorities.

But my reading's not all doom and gloom. I enjoyed a couple of boys-own adventures in pre-revolutionary France, with their tortuous plots and rollicking, barely sublimated homosexuality, and I plodded through a ridiculously lengthy tale which hypothesized that it was magic, not tactics and military might, which saved the Brits from Napoleon at Waterloo (but really, Donkey's had about a gutful of these long books. If an author can't tell a story in 500 pages, then they sure as hell can't manage it in 800 - My kingdom for an Editor!).

At the other end of the spectrum, I enjoyed a quick little number which saw me join the upper echelons of turn-of-the-century British snobs; all "I say Old Top, this is awfully rum, wot? Why don't we journey on down to Wensleydale for a spot of pheasant shooting and a couple of snorts before supper, eh?". It just goes to show, as I said before, books can really take you to places you would otherwise never experience, sometimes to the most ridiculous extremes. Like meeting a medieval, Italian Franciscan monk on the windswept southern coast of modern-day Victoria as he saves the eels from dying (yep, that's kinda weird), and behind the closed doors of the grubby world of British horse racing, and the tangled allegiances which see an innocent man swing just because he's good at what he does.

And finally, I made it to one writer's exploration of music, and the importance of sitting down and reflecting on what you hear, and what it means – clearly the basis for this post. Reading, in the last six months, has taken me to all of these places, helped me to experience the lives of all of hundreds of people, from different cultures and with different beliefs and practices ... and this only in six months! How unquantifiably beneficial for broadening one's intellectual and emotional personality must a life-time of reading be? Maybe there was something in all that nagging of teachers and parents back in the '80s, to stop kids from watching so much TV.

But there's always a downside...
And just before I sign-off, I wanted to bring up something I've noticed during this little reflective exercise. It seems pretty common for writers to take an historical event, and with the few facts that are available to them, construct an entire story, complete with fabricated plots, characters and links to other events and circumstances in history. As a reader, I sit there lapping it all up, fitting the characters and events into a logical matrix in my deranged brain and thinking to myself, "Wow, I never knew that happened". As I reader, I spend weeks, sometimes up to a month, buying into the fabrication, taking these new insights and altering what I had previously thought to be the truth, and committing all the now-superfluous info to the trash.

But the crunch comes when I get to the end of the story. As I turn the last page with that empty feeling I always get when the characters I've been with for so long will now be gone, I come to the author's post-script, and a statement which usually reads along the lines of;

While the events of such-and-such did take place in such-and-such a year at such-and-such a place, all other information contained in this story is fictitious, and any accuracies between the characters in this story and those of history are entirely coincidental.
Now don't get me wrong, it's not just books that do this, and in fact, TV and movies may be even more guilty of this crime, but isn't it a bit irresponsible to have someone buy into such stories, with all their vivid, true-to-life events and characters; so much so that they begin to alter what they know to be true, only to tell them at the end that it was all just a farce? And what about those readers/viewers who never knew anything about the events in the first place? What are they likely to think really happened after reading this story, or watching this movie?

As to whether this type of thing should be allowed is a difficult question, as it impacts on the issue of the right to free speech, but in a world where people are reading less, and where one of the most commonly used sources of learning is an on-line, user-contributed reference database, one can't help but feel there should be some importance placed upon ensuring the real facts of history are not lost to sensationalist, Hollywood-style depictions. How to manage this, though; that's got me stumped.

A selection of goodies from the last six months. Pic: www.librarything.com