What you need to know:
- As things stand, the commonest cause of death among members of my profession is heart attack.
- It is no wonder then that surgeons always try to capture the few happy moments they come across in their professional lives.
“Death and disease are dreary subjects,” wrote my favourite author, Somerset Maugham. “If I were you, I would have nothing to do with them!”
In the case of surgeons, however, death and disease are part and parcel of their professional life, and they meet them almost on a regular basis. In spite of their frequency and regularity, each one of them leaves a mark on a surgeon’s coronaries. Happily, these unfortunate moments are counteracted by triumphs under the most difficult surgical conditions and also the amusing experiences among patients.
In fact, if surgeons did not share some light moments in the course of their work, they would be driven to early graves by the heartaches and stresses they constantly endure.
As things stand, the commonest cause of death among members of my profession is heart attack. Sadly, many of my colleagues have undergone either a coronary bypass or an angioplasty – an innovative and relatively non-invasive procedure to unblock the coronary artery and put a stent in to keep it open.
It is no wonder then that surgeons always try to capture the few happy moments they come across in their professional lives. They not only remember but also cherish them. In my practice, with a mixture of diverse cultures, ethnicity and race, the varied responses and reactions of my patients never cease to amuse and charm me.
I remember well what the Irishman said when he brought his wife to see me a few years ago. After examining her, I took the man aside and, to give him an indication of how ill his wife was, whispered in his ear “I don’t like the look of your wife”. “Neither do I!” He retorted.
Then there was my little friend, Kuria, who was born without a back passage. I had to do a temporary colostomy soon after he was born. This meant bringing his large bowel to the surface so that he could pass his motion.
Thereafter, the poor boy underwent a few operations on his colon, which had to be preceded by an enema to cleanse his bowel pre-operatively. When he came for the final major operation, he inadvertently received three enemas. Staff on day shift, in attempt to save the ones on night duty from extra work, gave Kuria an enema before they went off duty. They forgot to enter it in the report and so those on night shift gave him another.
In the early hours of the morning, the Sister on night duty wanted to demonstrate to the probationers how to give an enema and found an easy prey in Kuria. So, at eight, when the theatre nurse went to collect Kuria and bring him to the operating theatre, she found he had locked himself inside the toilet. Her entreaties were of no avail and she came to the theatre empty-handed.
I had known Kuria since birth and had treated him for almost 10 years. So I thought I would go and explain to him that the operation he was to undergo that day was the final one and was not very different from the others.
On arrival in the ward, I was escorted by the Sister to the toilet. I knocked at the door and shouted from outside. “It’s me, Kuria. Please open the door.” He obviously recognised my voice because, in a little while I saw him popping his little head out of the little chink he made in the doorway.
Holding it at a rakish angle, he asked, “Friend or enema?”
The other day, an obstetrician friend told me a story related to his speciality. He delivered twins and phoned the father, a professor at the local university, who was known for his absent-mindedness. He often came to lectures wearing different coloured socks. When this was brought to his attention by an intrepid student, his stock reply was, “How odd. I have another pair like that at home!” On hearing the news about the twins, he replied, “Excellent news. Just do me a favour. Don’t tell my wife because I want to give her a surprise!”
I always remember, fondly, this obese, strictly vegetarian, Hindu lady who consulted me for the removal of her gall bladder filled with stones. She was grossly overweight and it would have meant digging through eight inches of face before ‘striking gold’. I gave her a diet sheet and asked her to come and see me in a couple of months, hoping that she would lose some weight and make her operation technically less difficult.
When she came back, the scales in the clinic showed that, in fact, she had put on more weight. When I asked her in a reproaching tone, how she had achieved this almost impossible feat, she explained cowering under the couch, “Blame your diet sheet, not me; I religiously took all the items on it immediately after I finished eating my normal meals!”
In the case of the Arab lady, it was I who provided the punch line! On the day of her discharge from the hospital after a successful major operation, she thanked me in her customary manner.
“I pray that you have seven sons,” she said. It was her way of expressing gratitude because, in Arab tradition, sons are a bigger blessing by virtue of the fact that they carry their parents in old age.
The Arab lady noticed the presence of Sister Janet Nyagah who was accompanying me on the ward round and who looked a little left out of the bounties being dished out. So that she could also share the feast of profligate fertility, the old lady turned to her and added, “I pray that you are also blessed with seven sons.”
Birth control measures and family planning were topical subjects in Kenya then and Nyagah was one of our very attractive young nursing sisters. Looking at her pretty face, I could not help quipping, “It would be much more fun, and it would also help our population control programme, if Sister Nyagah and I had the seven sons together!”
Finally, I must relate my encounter with Mr Sohan Singh, a Sikh gentleman who had established himself as a renowned bone-setter in Nairobi. He considered himself a part of alternative parallel medicine.
Like faith-healing, witchcraft and homeopathy had flourished in the country at the time and people often went to him with broken bones where he treated them with massages and oily bandages. Many of them came, later, to my Fracture Clinic with disjointed bones and disunited fractures.
So when I met him at a Sikh wedding, I took the opportunity to draw his attention to the many patients who came to see me with complications arising out of his treatment. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “because many of your complications end up with me!”