March 22, 2012

Obamacare, Romneycare, Ryancare…are you up to speed on this stuff? Don’t look at me. As I’ve already confessed in this space, health is a topic in which I have no interest. Forced to wait in a doctor’s office strewn with magazines titled Healthy Living, Men’s Health, Your Family’s Health, or Health & Fitness, I turn them over desperately in search of a TIME, Newsweek, or New Yorker. Confronted with someone talking about his own symptoms, I do mental arithmetic until he stops.

This is rather odd, as I grew up in a medical family. Not a doctor’s family; my dad was a low-grade clerical worker. My mother, however, was a professional hospital nurse. Mum deserves a column to herself, as today, March 22nd, 2012, is the 100th anniversary of her birth. She died in 1998, aged 86.

We lived in a smallish (pop. 100,000) English country town. There was one big general hospital and a number of satellite operations dealing with orthopedics, OB/GYN, lunatics, and suchlike. By the time I knew what was going on around me, my parents had lived there a dozen years. Mum had done every kind of nursing, from full-dress surgeon’s-on-his-rounds! hospital work to private hire. She was once nurse to old Mr. Barratt of Barratt’s Shoes, one of the town’s few accredited plutocrats.

“€œJust as the rich are different from the rest of us in having more money, so medical folk are different in having a much longer and closer acquaintance with suffering.”€

The town’s medical people all knew each other. There was a secret-society atmosphere among them. Things were widely known among the medics that could not be spoken of to civilians, as I was more than once sternly cautioned: who was a notorious philanderer, who had walked into the operating room drunk, who had narrowly escaped censure by the British Medical Association, and which staff nurse had been caught in flagrante with a very elderly consultant in the sterilization room (sic…and “Good for him!” was what everyone said). Irish nurses, of whom there was a disproportionate number, were looked at askance for their inattention to hygiene. As Mum put it: “You don’t want to stand too close.” The black Caribbean nurses just starting to appear were known as well meaning but dimwitted. Male nurses were universally assumed to be homosexual, absent dispositive evidence to the contrary.

(I always shake my head in disbelief when I hear some weepy victimological BS about how homosexuals were “oppressed” and “discriminated against” in years gone by. They sure weren’t in 1950s small-town England. Everyone knew who the queers were: a vicar, the barber, two of my schoolmasters, and the couple of “confirmed bachelors” who lived up the hill. Nobody much minded, except perhaps a few bluenoses. Joe Orton’s diaries confirm the easygoing picture. In the USA, with 50 sets of state laws from which to choose, things must have been even easier. Memoirs of Cole Porter and Liberace confirm that picture.)

When my father was still smoking cigarettes in his mid-70s, Mum persuaded him to go and have a chest X-ray. (God only knows how: Dad was the most iatrophobic person I have ever known.) It revealed a shadow on his lung, according to the physician. Dad quit smoking there and then. Within the family we all assumed Mum had a word with the physician beforehand, but she would never admit it.


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