Memoirs of a Medical Student (4)

Dr Purkinje.

A very interesting man. I couldn’t believe it when the house officers told me that there was a consultant who had such a high-pitched voice you would think he was an opera singer.  This was no opera singer but Dr Fredrick Purkinje, who had just come back from vacation overseas.  I’d never forget the first day we met him. We had waited for a full two hours and then he came sauntering in like he owned the world. Seeing the whole crowd of us, he lined us up.

“Med students, stand aside. House Officers stand aside,” he said in an unbelievably high voice. We stood aside and he addressed the house officers first. He discovered that one of them was absent and on enquiring of that particular officer’s whereabouts was told that he was most certainly on his way, but that assumption was corrected by a concerned registrar who reported that since the officer in question, had been on duty the previous night and had only recently been relieved, there was no question of him coming to join the round that morning. After which, Dr.  Purkinje proceeded to censure the two female officers who had given him such unreliable information and turning to us, he asked; “Do you see what your seniors are trying to do? Huun? They are teaching you to tell lies! Huun?” and turning back to them, he bade them write a letter of apology stating they would not exhibit such misconduct again. All this was said in the most unbelievably high tone of voice and the manner in which the whole affair was conducted procured in me such a degree of merriment that I endeavoured to hide it under pretence of coughing. After this, we proceeded to the bedside of the patient and even before the good doctor looked at the case notes, he fixed the patient with such a stare that would have withered the strongest constitution but fortunately or unfortunately, this patient was too far gone and the effect of the doctor’s gaze was lost on him. He then asked for the case summary and before the delegated house officer could speak forth two sentences, the eminent doctor interrupted with mutterings which none aside from himself could determine the nature of, and when the officer stopped to note his comment, he was told to continue so that it was that we spent about thirty minutes listening to the summary of about eight lines before even taking a look at the patient. The good doctor’s examination was commendable as he proceeded to inspect as many areas as possible of the poor man’s wasted body and he wanted to palpate and auscultate as many areas as he could. We students, thirteen of us one by one were called upon to examine the man’s chest and while it was a good learning experience for us to hear the characteristic wheezing so typical of consumption in the man’s chest, I did bemoan the fact that if we treated all 25 patients waiting for us in this manner, we should never finish this ward round. As can be imagined after a lot of mutterings and ‘lookings’ and ‘examinings’, a great deal of time had passed and we had succeeded in nothing except disturbing the poor man’s repose. However, Dr  Purkinje was not quite finished. He proceeded to ask us about our medical instruments which we brought out with alacrity, our pen torch, our tape rule, our tendon hammers and of course our stethoscope. But he discovered that something was missing: we had not brought our rulers. We could not for the life of us figure out what we would use rulers for when we had a tape rule and we informed him of our ignorance of the necessity of carrying a ruler about. Nevertheless, the good doctor told us in a firm voice that brooked no further argument to write 300 sentences stating our resolution to always bring our rulers with us on ward rounds. By this time, all source of mirth had vanished. I was exceedingly vexed at the unfairness of the punishment and derived no enjoyment from the rest of the round. Indeed, his high-handed manner, continual self-praise, fault finding and high tone of voice became increasingly annoying. We spent about five hours on the round before we were relieved by the fact that we had a class to attend. We were told to return but I am not  sorry to say that we did not. We did undertake our punishment though.  Everybody learned to pray that Dr Purkinje would not come for rounds and when he did, we suffered it with the knowledge that it would surely have an end and found relief in the tension produced by finding causes for laughter. At one of these rounds, he asked us all, the registrars, the house officers and the students our ages and proceeded to compare the ages with behaviour. From his hypothesis, we were all behaving so abominably because we were too young to be in school.

The good doctor had some very strong opinions on our sexual behaviour too. In his class on hepatitis, we were given a diatribe on just how terrible our escapades were. In his eyes, everyone was guilty. We all smoked and drank and had twenty boyfriends/girlfriends. Some of us tried to avoid condemnation by not looking at him directly but unfortunately it didn’t work.  When asked to sum up what the class was all about, a classmate of mine said it aptly: “It was all about kissing, kissing and kissing.” (He kept repeating the word).  All in all, the class was an experience and anytime we were beginning to get bored or tired, the doctor would punctuate his monologue with “Huun?” while we responded with “Hun”. It was hilarious; at least for the first five times we said it.  For the most part, I think I can safely conclude that Dr. Purkinje was and is still a very interesting man.

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