After four months of being a house officer in general surgery, two months of E.N.T. was a relative doddle. It was a one-in-two rota, so if my colleague was on holiday I could be on call in the hospital for thirteen days on the trot – but in reality it was more of an amble.
This was Newcastle General Hospital 1978, a red brick and concrete maze off the Westgate Road.
One Friday evening a barrister’s wife arrived with a fishbone in her throat. I was, by now, used to removing beads and other foreign bodies from Geordie children’s noses but I wasn’t about to chance my luck in the pharynx of one of the county set. I called in the senior registrar, a sensible man from the sub-continent who set about the consultation with a minimum of fuss. We arranged ourselves in the small treatment room, with its carbolic smell, wipe-clean walls, tiled floor and stainless steel trolleys of equipment.
The simple procedure required the patient to sit opposite the doctor with a table in between. My colleague needed one hand to hold the small circular mirror and his other hand to wield the forceps to pick up the bone. All I needed to do was to provide a third hand to hold our patient’s tongue forwards in her mouth, with a piece of clean gauze between my fingers and her taste-buds. The other essential piece of kit was the small spirit lamp, whose flame was used to heat the little mirror so that our patient’s breath did not condense on the surface and mist over the doctor’s view.
All was ready, reassuring words were spoken; I grasped her tongue as delicately as I could. He warmed the mirror, holding its handle like a pen and adjusted his position to get the best view. He picked up the forceps and continued to talk us through what he was doing. Despite her initial calm, our patient suddenly started to move. Her eyes opened wider, her pupils dilated, she sounded as if she was gagging. The senior registrar was keen to finish his simple task, I held the patient’s tongue more firmly, but dropped it when I smelt burning cloth and felt the pain in my arm.
It was all very embarrassing.
It was all very embarrassing. Giles and I decided to try that new restaurant off the square. He was late of course, the usual tale of woe about some new information for the next case, but by the time we had had our starters and a couple of glasses of wine were inside me, it could have been a pleasant evening.
I should have realized that when the menu said ‘whole sea bass’ that was exactly what it meant. When the thing came, I thought its eye looked particularly baleful, but once I had got over that, I’ll admit it did taste rather wonderful. Perhaps it was the third glass of wine, or the fish’s evil eye, but somehow or other I missed the bone that caught in my throat. Giles was most attentive of course. We tried glasses of water, lumps of bread, but there was no shifting it. The maître d’ apologized profusely, but all I wanted to do was get out – the whole world seemed to be watching.
We went to the General – dreadful place – so drab and functional. I’ll admit that we didn’t have long to wait and the senior registrar, Indian of course, was a model of politeness. He had a young man with him, a house officer who looked frightfully junior and, frankly, out of his depth. You can put a white coat on anything these days and call it a doctor.
Well, you know what I’m like with hospitals, ever since that time with my piles, but I was being remarkably calm – perhaps I was trying to impress Giles. He waited in the corridor – I think he hates hospitals more than I do.
The doctors had everything ready and it should all have gone swimmingly except for one little thing. The young doctor was so intent on his job of holding my tongue that he did not notice that his arm was directly above the spirit lamp they use for warming the mirror. Just as the senior one was about to tweak the bone out, I saw that the boy’s white coat was catching fire. I tried to tell them – but of course the idiot still had hold of my tongue. He finally let go when the flames started, but at least the fishbone was out.
I should be able to dine out on this one for quite a while.
© David Cundall