Odd jobs

Glory, Glory, Alleluia! I’m the luckiest of females

For I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.

Song by Herbert Farjeon, 1927

When it comes to social connections it is said that there are only six degrees of separation between any two people in the World. This idea was originally proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, and subsequent developments in mathematics and the architecture of large computer networks suggest that it is true. Most of us are only a step or two away from others in our own social groups (school, work, town of residence etc.), but there are a few individuals who meet a lot of other people and so connect these groups together. They might be politicians, travellers, entertainers and so on. Come to think of it, during her (so far) 67-year reign our Queen has met a great many of her subjects not only in Britain but throughout the Commonwealth. Another well-connected group are doctors.

Over the course of my career I have met a huge number of people, but to me what is interesting is not so much who they know, but what they do (or did) for a living.

Sometimes it is difficult to find out. During the media outrage at the release from prison of the Locherbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, on compassionate grounds as he had terminal prostate cancer, I was also trying to get one of my own patients released from prison for exactly the same reason, and although my patient was much sicker than al-Megrahi (I have this on good authority from his oncologist) he was given no quarter and died in prison. To this day I have no idea why he was there. In a way it makes no difference as I have the same duty of care whether he was a child murderer or a dodgy accountant, but even disinterested doctors can be nosy, can’t they?

With a practice located near two international airports I have seen my share of pilots and cabin crew. One might be tempted to suppose they got their cancers from occupational exposure to radiation (there is a lot more at 40,000 feet than on the ground) but actually that isn’t very likely – a radiation dose that is almost enough to kill you outright still only gives a small increased risk of cancer. I was always struck, though, by the difference between the pilots with prostate cancer and the pilots with testicular cancer. Of course it was simply a matter of age. The retired pilots in their 70’s and 80’s had mostly not started out working for commercial airlines, and I suppose being accustomed to taking off in a light aircraft while people are shooting at you engenders a sense of self-reliance and an attitude to risk which contrasts with those earnest young men who strictly follow protocol in order to get us safely to our destination.

Then there are the celebrities, actors, musicians, politicians, England rugby captains… Patient confidentiality prevents me from naming them, though as Andy Ripley mentioned me in his book I don’t think I am giving away any secrets if I mention him back. I only saw him briefly when it was apparent that he would benefit from a specific form of treatment that I couldn’t access at that time, so I referred him to a colleague at another centre with the appropriate facilities. I have no interest in rugby, but he had a rare presence and charisma, as well as a keen intelligence and an instinctive knowledge of what needed to be done that left me in doubt doubt that he was a leader of men. He was one of only three patients I can think of who were instantly able to grasp what was wrong with them and all its implications, and were never had unrealistic expectations of what was and was not possible. The other two were a member of the House of Lords, and a cleaning lady in a school.

As well as actors there were stunt men. One of them was ancient, but still working, playing the part of pensioners being mugged where knowing how to fall safely was still an essential skill. The younger ones would tell me about their working day, falling from burning buildings, fighting battles on horseback or driving exploding cars. These situations are all carefully managed (though still risky), but I also looked after a fighter test pilot, whose job was to take something like a Harrier jump jet and push it further than anybody had before him.

There was the man who used to smuggle guns through Gatwick Airport. Not a member of any organised criminal gang (as far as I am aware), just testing their security systems. Though of course nobody knew who he was if he got caught out. And there was Q, the man who made gadgets for MI5. He told me that he was better at it than anyone the CIA had, and it was heartening to learn that the Yanks had to buy British from time to time as a result. Another patient was always rather cagey about his work (if you’ll pardon the pun). He made security equipment, with customers in those parts of the world who are still in the market for the kind of stuff that just doesn’t sell over here any more, not now that Mr Pierrepoint has retired.

There was one gentleman I was particularly fond of, but he had the infuriating habit of always turning up at the wrong time to his appointment, and very often at the wrong hospital (“Oh, was I supposed to be having a scan? I thought it was my chemotherapy”). He was another airport employee, managing baggage handling.

There was an African presidential hopeful (he didn’t get elected) and a member of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (I’m not making that up). There was a diplomat who had worked with Ronald Reagan, a Polish spy, a world expert in anthropology and a cinema organ tuner.

Then there was the man responsible for First Day Covers, much in demand among philatelists. From time to time the Post Office issues commemorative stamps, and on the day of issue you can buy a full set of them already stuck onto a special envelope which you can address and post to yourself, so that it will be franked with the collectable date and pass into history. Not just our post-office, but many of them round the world. There is no standard size, shape or layout for stamps, so each issue requires a bespoke die for the machine that sticks them on. My patient made those. He was in his 80’s and told me that there was nobody else in the World providing this service. I suppose it is only a matter of time before you won’t be able to buy stamps at all – you can already download and print your own.

Scariest, though, are other doctors. You know that you are under scrutiny, and also you can identify with them in a way that you can’t with anybody else (doctors regard themselves as belonging to another species, immune from the conditions that they see and treat daily; this is essential for them to remain functional at all). Worst was when I found myself treating one of the surgeons I had worked for in my first ever job.

My favourite of all time was the first man on television. Logie Baird’s tea-boy. Now that really is part of History.

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