My Last Word on Wisdom From Experience

March 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Australian Doctor 1 March 2013

‘It could kill you,” I said. My patient struggled to speak. His eyes bulged as he rasped: “I couldn’t care less.” After catching a couple of quick breaths, he continued: “They’re all dickheads. The lot of ’em.”

He was referring to the hospital doctors who’d stopped his quinine. He wanted it for leg cramps.

In Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll invented the word “chortle”. It’s a combination of a chuckle and a snort.

My patient started chortling. And I started prescribing. We can at least allow people to control their lives even if we’re not supposed to allow them to control their deaths.

If asked, I’d have also explained what quantities and combinations of drugs might be hazardous. But that subject never arose.

My patient was short and barrel-chested, with a white beard.

A cartoonist would draw him as Grumpy, the dwarf from Snow White.

Confucius said wisdom could be gained in three ways: reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest) and experience (the bitterest).

Grumpy the dwarf gained wisdom from experience. In the re-imagined fairytale TV series Once Upon a Time, he told Snow White: “I don’t want my pain erased. As wretched as it is, I need my pain. It makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy.”

Grumpy the non-dwarf also gained wisdom from experience.

He wound up an elderly pensioner in Brisbane’s poorest suburb, clinging to life for years, slowly dying from lung cancer and emphysema.

Maybe he was hanging around to see if things got better. I wish they had. The day after I watched a zombie movie, Grumpy shuffled grey-faced into my consulting room. I suddenly realised it takes phenomenal willpower to be the walking dead.

I last saw him a couple of weeks ago. He’d recently started treatment for brain secondaries.

People often act like their life’s dramas are some sort of real-life drama. Grumpy didn’t. It was impressive.

Last week, in a rare triumph of modern medicine, I received timely news from a hospital. Grumpy had died.

Two receptionists were teary. I’d have also shed a tear if my lacrimal sacs weren’t shy.

All my patients die. Eventually.

I miss most funerals but rescheduled patients for Grumpy’s. I arrived to an empty car park. It seemed nobody was even interested in checking he was really dead.

The folks at the cemetery office said they were running no funerals that day.

They were, however, aware of a separate Muslim group gathered down the hill organising their own service.

Grumpy started chortling in my ear: “Less use than a body snatcher late for a cremation.”

I rang the clinic receptionist. Yes, Grumpy’s widow had given her the same funeral details that I’d been told. And no, Grumpy wasn’t a Muslim.

“Are you sure?” I ventured hopefully. “He’s got a beard… ”

The receptionist made an odd noise. It wasn’t quite a groan or a snort. Maybe it was a grort?

As I drove off, my phone rang. It was the receptionist. She’d called Grumpy’s widow but she was out. Somewhere. Probably a funeral.

I was also told that an elderly patient had just fallen heavily at home. His wife had said his blood pressure was low and she’d wondered if I’d do a home visit.

I agreed to drop in before returning to the surgery but felt anxious driving there.

Should I have called an ambulance? And if things didn’t go well, how would I find his funeral?

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