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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (42) Down to Work Sort of… (3)

As may be obvious, I was always more interested in what may be called the art of medicine rather than the pure science of medicine. I was more interested in how to make people feel better or manage better, whatever the illness or its possible outcome. So when it came to subjects like pharmacology, with all those drugs, and their apparently specific actions on apparently specific mechanisms in the body, I floundered. Every time I began to read texts, I found myself waking from sleep about an hour and a half later. I guess it echoed my problems with chemistry and physics at Advanced Level in my final years at school. I flogged away, but needed help from Jan (who was so much better at understanding mechanisms (based in her natural intellectual leanings and her training in Biochemistry). She strove to help me with diagrams and lists and repetitions and little tests. But, for me, it remained the boring end of the medicine I loved. Ultimately, my deficits in the area were nearly my undoing in my final exams. But I will return to that topic in due course.
I found similar difficulties with trying to make sense of electrocardiograms. They had precision, and a whole language to match. Each change in the recorded rhythm had meaning, and each slight change in different parts of the wave could be interpreted. You would have thought that with my parents both being artistically oriented, and with own abilities at visual recall, I would have found it all easy. But there was a disconnect somewhere.
One afternoon, I was moaning about my difficulties after a bad experience with a consultant berating my ability on a ward round. In the upper reaches of the medical school, my colleague had come across a machine called a GrundyTutor, and extolled its virtues. This was a bland-looking, rather oversized, television on a desk in a small room with one chair. These days we would think of it as a primitive computer, with a primitive keyboard, and programmed with a primitive training for learning Electrocardiography. You had to book times in a diary. There was a lengthy introduction with questions that had to be answered before the machine would allow you to move on. I grew to loathe this boring object in its isolation. But I flogged on, eventually notching up close to 24 hours over some weeks. An image of an ECG would appear with a brief clinical note; then there was a question to be answered by pressing one of a number of buttons related to up to four answers. The screen would change. If you were successful, a new image would appear. If you failed, you were taken back to previous screens and relevant lessons to be completed again and again until you got it right. There was no way to bypass the block; you just had to get it right. I was determined to complete the program. I have no idea why. There was no immediate reward system, and I felt like a laboratory rat. Sadly, I seemed to continue to retain the ability to get interpretations mixed up when faced with a consultant on ward rounds. But, given a number of episodes that occurred later, I am glad I persevered until the end. More on that to come! At this point, even with a sense of achievement, I craved light relief from the boredom.
A very tall and blond, imposing student called Andrew Stanway had taken over editorship of The King's College Hospital Gazette, a small in house rag for med students to record events, notable people and bits of creative writing. The Gazette had begun in 1921 and had a lengthy tradition, publishing two issue a year. It contained articles, advertisements for events and subsequent reports, photographs, requests for funding and all sorts of other ‘ephemera’. Andrew needed an assistant editor, and in 1965 I had volunteered. The tasks were not onerous, but involved spruiking the Gazette to others to obtain possible articles, a few meetings to discuss content, some editing work, and occasional writing. Every time I got really bored with study, there was usually something else that allowed me to ‘goof off’ and pretend I had important things to do. Andrew was a very strong character, and very much in charge; so my responsibilities were few. For me, it was fun, and I continued to play a role through to 1968.
One bonus was that you could get little bits of writing published, and for some reason I thought I had some talent in that area. An example is the little piece of doggerel I had penned in 1963 while a resident at Halliday Hall (see episode 26, page ??). Andrew thought it was worthy of inclusion in an issue. I was to go on writing a small series of articles while a medical officer at King’s, but I may return to those at a more appropriate time. I wanted to make a couple of points. The first is something you already know about me; that is I am prone to taking up extraneous pursuits when I am bored and need amusement. The more the pressure to complete serious study, the more I seek diversion. The pantomimes and plays are a good example of this game. They are fun, a creative community exercise, and provide amusement for others; but they take enormous amounts of time and energy away from what I could or should be doing. I was involved in drama as a serious diversion both in school and out of school hours when I could have been studying for exams; it translated to university, and later was to recur in my life in Australia.
The second point is that the writing game began while I was at King’s. As a House Captain, I had written tiny reports for the school magazine. I would not say they are of great merit. But at King’s I began to learn the trade of writing and some of the intricacies of publishing that were to flourish in later years. The seed was sown. I have recently come across a couple of books he has published on Sexuality. As it says on his site “Dr. Andrew Stanway is an experienced relationship therapist, bestselling author, and presenter. He has written over sixty books about medicine and health including those related to his main interest--psychosexual and marital medicine.” I guess the writing game began at that time for Andrew as well.
Another diversion occurred at home and was related to our birthdays for 1966. We talked about having a party, and inviting all of our friends. I am not sure where the idea came from, but we decided to have Italian food, and this extrapolated into having a ‘Roman Orgy’. This sounds much worse than it was; we never intended a full on orgy, just a party with a Roman theme. We asked everyone to come in Roman costume; pretty easy for the woman, and slightly more difficult to organise for the men. And lots of people got excited by the concept and went out of their way to dress up. Jan had a suitable long dress, and we organised adornments. The two of us set about making a centurion’s breastplate for the man of the flat. We procured some fine chicken wire and pressed it into the shape of my torso. Over this we used papier maché to build up a torso with muscular abdominals and pectorals. After several sessions we succeeded and then painted it in gold paint. We went through a similar process with a helmet, on which we fixed an upside down cheaply purchased brush (as in brush and dustpan). This too was painted gold. Spectacular! Jan made me a tunic and, with a pair of sandals, I was ready to go.
I cannot remember where or when I acquired a Scalextric track and cars, but I think I must have had them for a while. I had this mad idea of creating a chariot racing game. I got hold of some balsa wood, some plastic Roman soldiers, and some plastic horses. Over some weeks I built several chariots around the engine and base from the dismantled cars. The slot for the track went under the horse’s front hooves. The trial was pretty good, though if you tried to make them go too fast, they spun off the track; but then I guess there was a touch of reality in that.
We went to Borough market to get bunches of grapes. Jan cooked up a massive pile of spaghetti and saucepans full of sauce (may not have been Roman, but it was Italian). We had a load of chicken legs and wings piled high on platters. We had organised plastic goblets for the wine.

The night came. Our downstairs neighbor had gone away for the weekend. Chris and Bob came downstairs, suitably attired, and the flat filled to overload with about 20 couples. The kitchen filled with bottles of wine and other contributions. Noisy couples, loud music, and loads of laughter. The Roman Chariot racing was set up in the bedroom, and lasted about an hour and half before wheels fell off, and plastic Romans fell out of chariots. Laughter rang out. The wine flowed. We all started behaving like the imagined Romans at a feast, lolling around (sorry, ‘reclining’), and throwing grape pips and chicken bones over our shoulders. Well past 1am, Jan and I did the beginnings of clearing up the disaster, with help from Bob and Chris. Eventually we were so wiped out we just went to bed. When we looked at our precious home the next day, we had very mixed feelings, and it took days for us to find errant grape pips and the occasional chicken bone down the back of a chair. Laughingly, we agreed to never do that again. But it had been a spectacular success, and people talked about the whole show for months.

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