The Tumour in the Whale

Rodney Dale

 

A Universal Book

Published in 1978

by the Paperback Division of

W H Allen & Co Ltd

A Howard and Wyndham Company

44 Hill Street, London WIX 8LB

 

Copyright © 1978 by Rodney Dale

All rights reserved

 

Printed in Great Britain by

Cox & Wyman Ltd, London, Reading and Fakenham

 

ISBN 0 426 18710 5

 

 

3

 Doctor Whale

‘Doctor, Doctor . . . people keep ignoring me.’

‘I know how you feel – next, please!’

Old phobia

 

There is a magical rapport called the doctor-patient relationship whose erosion, ascribable variously to the war, the NHS and writers who lift the lid off the medical profession, has been apparent for some time.

An industrial psychologist friend of mine, who had made a special study of doctors' interviewing techniques, found himself lecturing jointly on the subject with a top surgeon of the old school. They got together before the meeting for the purpose of comparing notes on what each was going to say. After the introductions, the surgeon blasted my friend: 'You know, the whole trouble is that these days the patients don't call you 'Sir' any more.' After that, there was little more to be said.

The same friend was on another occasion being shown some work which was being done on using a computer to interview patients. The computer types a question, the patient types the answer. ‘Don’t you think,’ my friend asked tentatively, ‘that the human element is missing from the system?’ ‘Not at all,’ replied the proud progenitor, ‘we program the computer to make suitably encouraging remarks from time to time.’

The doctor–patient relationship is ticklish; the secret of being a patient is to start in a thoroughly one-down position and gradually find out how far the doctor will let you go. I was once referred to a specialist and, before visiting him, looked him up in the Medical Directory so that I should know what sort of man to expect. The Directory told me of some interesting-looking papers he had written, so I went and looked them up. Although I didn’t mean to, I let on far too early in our consultation that I knew something about him. Instead of his being flattered, the information completely upset the DPR, and nothing came from the referral.

When I was a boy, medicine was simple. You had spots — it was measles. You had a cough — it was whooping-cough. And so on. There was nothing to suggest that there were more complex conditions.

If you were ‘off colour’, it was the liver — you were said to be ‘liverish’. So my grandfather said, anyway. And his cure? A ‘dose of physic’. My father’s grandmother’s cure was ‘a good dose of cascara’. When she died, she left an enormous cupboard of Casacara Sagrada bottles — empty and full. It was great fun, because the tablets burnt like little fireworks.

Words such as ‘cancer’ and ‘impetigo’ were never spoken — it was years before I heard them. And, for me at any rate, the discovery of such conditions coincided with the awakening conscience that the medical profession was not infallible.

Of course I may have been put off doctors by our family GP who sought to cheer me up when I was a yowling infant by pretending to bash himself on the head with a mallet.

Be that as it may, it is more likely that, as I’ve hinted, the medical practitioner has been exposed as an ordinary human who has been through some course of training which happened to be medical. As one’s experience widens, one begins to understand the extra-ordinary ambiguity in ‘caring’ – the patient must be treated as an individual human being, and the carer must understand the continuum between caring and emotional involvement, and how to detach appropriately. Caring without emotional involvement is in itself an emotional strain: no wonder there are high jinks off duty.

At the same time, medical stories have swung from the perfect nurse who marries the almost-numinous doctor, and the Marcus Welbys of this world (are they of this world?) to Richard Gordon's more believable creations, and the M.A.S.H. team. There are endless WTSs in the medical profession, and it may have been through the exertions of these media some of them have crept out. The collection here is not wholly of that genre; it contains other stories with strong medical connections, and some which may have crossed the border from WTSs to old wives' tales.

Current horrors, revived by books about them, are the fear of spontaneous combustion and the fear of being buried alive.

Spontaneous combustion is ‘a curious belief that had considerable currency in the days of the temperance crusades’ and is apparently still held by at least one person. Michael Harrison presents us with a collection of accounts of incidents ranging from those to be found in fiction, via those which are said to have occurred in previous centuries, to those which are said to have occurred in our own times.

He makes us think. He asks: 'what is the common factor linking three deaths on 7th April, I938: those of John Greely, helmsman of the SS Ulrich; George Turner, a lorry-driver who died at Upton; and William ten Bruik who burned to death at Ubbergen in Holland?' And the answer could be that Ulrich, Upton and Ubbergen all begin with U.

In investigating the Phenomenon, Mr Harrison invokes Photography, Probability, Poltergeists and Pi, not to mention Phlogiston, the Pull of gravity and a Professor of Pathology. (He does not mention this alliterative connection, however.)

I recommend this book, if only that the reading of it may enable you to judge better for yourself whether there is such a phenomenon as spontaneous combustion in humans as described. I would point out, however , that the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys knows nothing of spontaneous combustion, though this ignorance is no doubt 'all part of the plot.'

And the authoritative Glaister shows us a photograph depicting 'Almost complete destruction of body with relatively slight surrounding damage. The fuel was supplied by the natural body fat.'

There has always been a recognition of the danger of being buried alive, and there are plenty of patents for coffins with breathing tubes, communications systems and provision for supplies of food and water pending exhumation. I would be very glad to report that live burial is just not on, but unfortunately Glaister is far from reassuring:

There have been a number of cases in recent years when bodies of people who have been examined by qualified medical practitioners, sometimes in hospitals, have been transported to mortuaries where they have been found to be alive by the mortuary attendants. This gives the profession a bad image and should be avoided.

The italics are mine, for it is not made clear which profession is meant. One would like to think that it's the qualified medical practitioner, but I fear that the implication is that mortuary attendants ought to stand by with clubs at the ready rather than drawing attention to the faulty diagnoses of their more highly-esteemed brethren.

'Three! You've won the sweep this week, Ted!'

Still in the mortuary, one of the great forensic pathologists was (naturally enough) a frequent visitor to a certain London mortuary, which was always immaculately kept by one of the old school of attendants bursting with pride at his calling. There arose between the pathologist and the attendant that brand of friendship which cements two such men of relative standing - officer and batman, tycoon and chauffeur, etc. 'Your mortuary is so clean that you could eat off the floor', oft quipped the pathologist.

One particularly heavy day, the pathologist returned from Bristol to find a message at Paddington station calling him to an urgent case at the mortuary, so he bought some sandwiches and a pie at the buffet and took a taxi to the mortuary. He rushed in, case and umbrella in one hand, half-eaten pie in the other. The attendant came to take his coat and in the scramble the pie fell to the floor. The pathologist looked at the attendant, and the attendant looked at the pathologist. The pathologist gulped, and picked up the pie. 'Well,' he said, 'here goes…'

Death is a peculiar subject. As I have remarked elsewhere, to have known a recently deceased person, however slightly, confers some reflected glory on us. If we knew the deceased more intimately, it tales some time to come to terms with the fact that we shall never see, nor hear, him again. Some never come to terms with the fact, and are useful fodder for some mediums and purveyors of religion. Not all, though. I doubt if anyone would dispute that the roots of primitive religion may lie in the mysticism of death. We have neither the room nor the brief to explore such thoughts here, but the following quotation brings us back to the WTS, and demonstrates what one might call the Pelion-Ossa syndrome - the more a person's statement is questioned, the more is he likely to wind himself deeper and deeper into the mud of unjustified defence.

That the human body changes weight at the moment of death is believed by great numbers of people who, however, divide themselves into opposing camps - the lighter-weights and the heavier-weights.

Those who believe that the body becomes lighter seem to think that the soul has weight, weight that must of necessity depart with it, and — with that brisk regard of strict veracity which so frequently marks discussions of this nature — have claimed that dying men, at the very moment of their decease, have been placed on delicate scales that have recorded their mortuary degravitation. But these persons have never been able to specify in just what ghoulish laboratory this took place, or what private home was so interestingly equipped, or the names and addresses of the relatives who so commendably placed scientific and religious curiosity before sentimental concern for the patient's comfort…

More prevalent is the other belief, expressed in the phrase 'dead weight', that a body weighs more after death. But it only seems to weigh more…

World Heavyweight or Lightweight Champion

From death to birth. At the time of the emergence of the pill, there were numerous stories of daughters removing their mothers' pills for their own use, and substituting something similar in appearance. Presumably this was before the days of the bubble-pack. The mother, of course, became pregnant, and the daughter didn't.

 

A foafs sister shares a flat with two other girls. She told of their inebriated return one night, with three young men. Her older sharer - more experienced - asked the younger if she'd like a contraceptive device, an offer eagerly accepted. In the morning, the donee was asked how she got on with it. 'All right,' she said, 'except that it tasted horrible.'

This puts one in mind of the newly-qualified lad who instructing issued an unsophisticate with some suppositories, instructing him to insert one in the rectum each morning and evening. When the patient returned it was clear that he hadn't followed the instructions - 'Have you been inserting them in your rectum?' 'Course I have Doctor. What d'you expect me to do, stick then, up my bloody arse?'

A young friend of mine was completely nonplussed when the doctor handed him an ice-cream carton, saying 'Make me a stool.'

There is no virtue in obscurity for the sake of delicacy.

There are tales of precious little children, who, desirous of the company of a little co-sibling, pierce the french letter pack with a needle, an attack which of course paases unnoticed in the heat of the moment use.

These little activities doubtless gave rise to the expected result of sperm-ovum union, but we should spend some time considering more far-fetched myths of sterility, impregnation, telegony and parturition.

 

Sterility, caused by agents at a distance using secret means, is unpleasant to contemplate and difficult to prove or disprove. It has recently been officially stated that the Russians have not been using beams of microwave energy to sterilize the inhabitants of the American Embassy. But whoever thought that they had been? My guess is that if radio and television were not (on balance) a boon and a blessing to men, the electromagnetic radiation which enables them to function would be accused of causing any dread disease or condition for which a scapegoat was needed.

 

That the skill of the chef could be endangered by the development of the frozen pre-packed meal and the microwave oven is perhaps rationalized and articulated in current microwave oven myths: that your kidneys can be cooked, that they make you sterile, and that chefs are issued with 'Geiger counters' to measure the dose of radiation they receive. And as soon as someone asserts that he knows someone whose kidneys have been cooked, etc, there is your WTS.

 

Of course, 'cooking kidneys' can be a joke on a par with making things out of one's own head, or asking a butcher if he has any brains. But I think that there is slightly more depth in the kidneys being singled out by the death-rays for cooking. My mother averred that if you sat on radiators, you would 'melt the fat round your kidneys,' backing up the story by saying that there were people at school to whom it happened. Of all the internal organs, the ones with which most people are familiar are the kidneys - they are much more defined than the amorphous liver. Again, 'kidneys' is a euphemism for 'testicles', and that, added to the urinogenital connection, gives the kidneys a special aura of singularity, and links kidneys and sterility.

Geiger counters are, of course, for detecting radioactivity (which might make you sterile) and not microwave radiation This particular story (the carrying of Geiger counters) has actually appeared in the national press. As if chefs didn't have a hard enough life slaving over hot stoves without having to lug pieces of monitoring equipment about. Most of them would probably settle for sterility. The germ of the idea probably springs from the dosemeters which radiographers and others wear.

However, the history of insidious sterility should give -us no cause for complacency. The pioneers of X-rays and radioactivity at the turn of the century had no idea what their work was doing to them until it was too late.

Perhaps it was not surprising to find that:

In the summer of 1943 absenteeism among woman war workers [in the U.S.A.] reached such proportions that sabotage was suspected and agents of the FBI were called in to investigate. Their finding, confirmed by other governments and private agencies, was that women were being given from lathes and benches by strange sexual fears. Some feared sterility from welding or from working with ultra-violet or infra-red rays. Some feared that riveting caused cancer of the breast. A wholly new and fictitious female disorder - 'riveter's ovaries' - had been invented. And scores of women engaged in filling fire-extinguishers for aeroplanes had left in panic when it was rumoured that the material they were handling, carbon tetrachloride, caused pregnancy.

Mind you, there's nothing to say that these rumours were not started by saboteurs. As for the last one, that CCL4, causes pregnancy, what more evidence is needed for the necessity of a proper sex education?

The causes of pregnancy (apart from the well-known one) are many and varied. One of the most persistent is that women have conceived after using lavatories, baths or washing equipment previously used by men. Clearly, this makes a good excuse for anything untoward which may befall an innocent maiden, and is slightly more credible than the traditional kissing a frog.

If (some) women live in fear of lurking sperm, how much more are they concerned about the possibility of giving birth to animals?

It was current along the Atlantic seaboard of America in the mid- 1930s that a girl had hatched an octopus egg - presumably nurtured in her womb, presumably taken on board whilst bathing. And a nurse 'died in terrible agony' when a snake which she was nurturing in her stomach bit her. In this case, it appears, she had been put on a diet and the snake, annoyed by the shortage of food, had decided to cat its host. (Snake-eggs, some believe, may be ingested by drinking from a garden hose. There's sympathetic magic for you.)

Snakes, again no doubt because of their shape, have oft been accused of springing from the ground and penetrating ladies - the fear becomes a mythical reality. It is interesting to note that the 'subtil serpent' of Genesis which is now represented as curling round the apple-tree chatting matily to Eve, originally went up inside her.

Said Rabbi Jose: 'Why is it that many kinds of magic and divination are only found in women?' R. Isaac replied: 'Thus I have learnt, that when the serpent had intercourse with Eve he injected defilement into her, but not into her husband.' R. Jose then went up to R. Isaac and kissed him [Et tu, jose?], saying: 'many a time have I asked this question, but not until now have I received a real answer.' This information appears in other sources, but it was too much for the editors of our present Bible, who arranged the transformation in about 500 BC.

It's one thing to nurture someone else's egg in your bosom; another to be fertilized by an animal. Mrs Joshua Tofts of Guildford was frightened by a rabbit, and gave birth to a litter of rabbits (26), she said. That was in I727. Later, she admitted the deception.

Since then, the public has been regaled with tales of animal births from time to time, and almost every old-established community, it seems, has a whispered account of such an occurrence.

Whenever the husband is away for a long time - at 'the wars' for example - there is always the danger of his spouse giving birth to animals. Often, it is an officer's wife, and she gives birth to a litter of alsatian pups. The combination of officer's wife and alsatian seems inevitable; there is, one feels ' a level below which the story would fail to satisfy. Terence Rattigan catches the mood nicely. Why the mismatched chromosomes choose to represent the father wholly is unclear.

Presumably such women are married by telegony, a concept — possibly even now — as widespread as it is false. The belief is that impregnation by a particular sire can affect all future offspring, and the famous example is Lord Morton's Foal. Lord Morton produced a hybrid from a quagga stallion and a chestnut mare. (This was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, before the quagga became extinct.)

Subsequently the mare produced three foals (in three pregnancies) by a black Arabian stallion; all the foals showed 'distinct quagga-like stripes, 'proving conclusively' that the germ cells of the mare had been 'infected' by the quagga' for all time. It has not been possible to replicate this result (using a zebra instead of a quagga), neither is there any evidence either from years of well-documented breeding of all sorts, or from physiological knowledge.

Even so, it used to be thought that for a woman to produce children by the dead husband's brother (if she had already children by her dead husband) was uneugenic. Presumably it would not be entirely unexpected if the products of the two unions bore some similarity. Why it should be 'uneugenic', with or without telegony, escapes me.

The production of large numbers of children is something which catches the public fancy, though 10 seems to be the absolute upper limit since reliable records began. However, before science was quite as scientific as we now believe it to be, strange events were reported from time to time such as that reported on a plaque in an abbey near The Hague. In translation, it reads:

Margaret, daughter of the illustrious Lord Florent Count of Holland, and of Mathilde, daughter of Henri, Duke of Brabant , Sister of William, King , of Germany, being 42 years of age, was delivered on the Friday before Easter, at 9 o'clock in the morning, in the year 1276, of 365 babies male and female which (in the presence of several great lords and gentlemen) were arranged in front of the font and were all baptized by a bishop, the males being christened the same name, namely jean, and the females Elizabeth. All died soon after, as did the mother, and all were buried in the same sepulchre.

Probably what we call a 'hydatidiform mole' (bunch of grapes pregnancy), which is what happens when the chorionic villi get out of control. Doubtless the bishop and the members of the court were somewhat myopic, a condition exacerbated by the mother's being the king's niece.

The apparent opportunities for medical students to have fun in and out of the dissecting room are obvious. A widely-told story concerns a student who borrowed a set of male genitals and went out for some fun. After an evening's drinking, he concealed himself in a doorway with his trophy, and practised flashing, only to be interrupted by a young policeman: 'What's going on here, then?' The student dropped the parts and took to his heels. The policeman shone his torch on the ground, and went out like a light.

A variant for less hardy company concerns a student who borrowed a finger before setting out on a train journey. He arranged for the door of his compartment to be improperly shut, so that a porter on the platform gave it a hefty shove as the train drew past him. At that signal, the student threw the finger out of the window, uttering a suitable yell of pain. The porter is said to have fainted - presumably his cause-and-effect reasoning wasn't working too well.

'Cor! For a minute there I thought it was one of mine!'

If that story is an ambiguous WTS funny story, the next surely bears the classic WTS stamp - since telling it tends to give rise to a particular sort of silence. In fact, it's a 'head-dropper', a name I bestow on a piece of information, such as 'my mother's dog has died', which leaves one cold, therefore speechless, and looking at the ground. So this WTS is a head-dropper.

Some medical students acquired a leg from the dissecting rooms and put it in a girl's bed; they then concealed themselves to enjoy the fun. The girl returned to her room, undressed and got into bed. There was no sound. Uneasily they conferred - what should they do? They decided that the best thing would be to creep slowly away, which they did. The following day, they had no need to go to the trouble of making discreet inquiries - the news was soon abroad that the girl had been found rigidly clutching the leg, staring, staring in front of her. She has not spoken since.

In most museums of pathology, there are various creatures displayed in jars. It may have been at that same medical school where some students connected electrical wires to a preserved cyclops baby so that it could be made to wink at passers-by.

Tim overheard someone, who knows a girl, whose boyfriend's sister is a nurse at Addenbrooke's Hospital (how's that for a foafs pedigree?), explaining that this nurse had told of some foreign medical students who went into the mortuary and propped up a corpse, giving it a cup of coffee to hold. When the porter went to collect the body, he fainted, and was last seen being carted out on a stretcher.

A story which is gaining ground as I write is of a woman who went to the doctor with a pain in her face. The doctor examined her, and asked her to remove her dentures. Under the upper plate was lodged a tomato pip, which had germinated, and the roots were 'several inches' into the gum - and growing round into the brain, presumably. If they're not now, they will be in a telling or two.

A friend was accosted by an elderly porter at a country station whilst she was waiting for a train - a very difficult situation from which to escape. He explained to her in great detail the horrors of eating tomatoes, for the pips germinate inside you and give you cancer.

Gooseberry pips - and, I'm told, apple pips - collect in your appendix and give you appendicitis.

My grandfather used to scrape the loose scales off his sardines - a tedious ritual - since his pet theory was that the scales 'formed a lining on the inside of the stomach.

Some people don't like flowers on the table, 'lest the pollen should get into their food,' said I, 'and they give birth to a buttercup,' added my father.

 

 

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