‘Some years ago I had the very good luck to fall into the hands of a totally useless doctor. It was hell, and nearly worse than that, but it taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. He was charming, grey-haired, smooth and beautifully dressed. He was standing in for my usual GP, a shabbier, more abrasive man.
I went to him with a troubling, persistent pain in a tender place. He prescribed an antibiotic. Days passed. It did not work. The pain grew worse. He declared that in that case I needed surgery, and the specialist to whom he sent me agreed with barely a glance. I was on the conveyor belt to the operating table.
In those days I believed, as so many do, in the medical profession. I was awed by their qualifications. Yet the prospect of a rather nasty operation filled me with gloom and doubt. As I waited miserably for the anaesthetist in the huge London hospital to which I had been sent, a new doctor appeared. I braced myself for another session of being asked ‘Does this hurt?’ and replying, between clenched teeth, that yes it blinking well did. But this third man was different. He did not ask me pointlessly if it hurt. He knew it did. He was, crucially, a thinking man who did not take for granted what he was told.
He looked at my notes. He actually read them, which I don’t think anyone else ever had. He swore under his breath. He hurried from the room, only to return shortly afterwards to say I should get dressed and go home. The operation was cancelled. All I needed was a different antibiotic, which he – there and then – prescribed and which cured the problem in three days. He was furious, and managed to convey tactfully that the original prescription had been incompetent and wrong.
The whole miserable business had been a dismal and frightening mistake. He was sorry. Heaven knows what would have happened if Providence had not brought that third doctor into the room. I still shudder slightly to think of it. But the point was this. A mere title, a white coat, a smooth manner, a winning way with long words and technical jargon, will never again be enough for me.’
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