“They just don’t teach you how to deal with this kind of thing in Medical School” I mused, as my sweet 86 year old patient lying in the Emergency Department opened her legs and asked me to sleep with her. Avoiding the impulse to run, vomit, or yell “I think that fruit is out of season!” and as my eyes frantically focussed on anything other than the pensioner voyeur making seductive gestures in front of me, I realised, in fact, that most of the expectations I had fostered for my first year as a full-time Doctor in hospitals had been very wide of the mark.
My university years hadn’t exposed me to aggressive alcoholics, prepared me for patients who thought they were a kettle or believed they could talk to dolphins, or even accustomed me to dealing with death or people in horrific pain. University lecturers didn’t berate me for being stupid, lazy, hedonistic, immature and immoral, or at least not with nearly as much vigour as hospital professors! The simulated patients we practiced on during clinical skills sessions were all perfectly healthy, terribly co-operative and encouraging, and, with the possible exception of some of the volunteering Arts students, weren’t high on illicit drugs. Medical textbooks were literally bursting to the seams with glossy colour photos of very serene and sterile doctors calming examining angelic patients, who looked reverently at their saviours with trust in their eyes, absorbing their every word. Everyone was smiling and obviously enjoying the experience.
University open days conveniently forgot to mention the obscenely long hours, the early mornings, or the fact that in the hospital food chain medical students and interns were positioned lower than the cleaners. No… I had read – or at least browsed – the textbooks, and attended most of the lectures and there was absolutely no reference to being vomited on, sprayed with blood from hysterical patients with lacerations, being propositioned by pensioners with dementia, or having to drive to a patient’s house to feed their cat in a vain attempt to stop them from discharging from hospital.
In this instance, as I made a hasty exit from my geriatric femme fatale, I don’t know whether it was shock, repulsion or simply a defence mechanism of the body designed to help cope with extremely distressing images, but at that instant I felt that it was a perfectly acceptable option to drop out and become a postman. Funky uniform, working outdoors, a nifty bike… what more could one want out of life?
And as I relayed my horrific experience to my fellow intern colleagues at lunch the following day, hoping for some sympathy or maybe even some condolence, I was surprised to find their responses almost unanimous… “So Ben… when’s your next date?”