19 July 2009

Good teachers

Everybody remembers a good teacher. It's true of school teachers and it's true of medical teachers. To this day Dr Grumble can remember teaching sessions he had as a medical student decades ago. Sometimes he remembers what he was taught but not who taught him. And sometimes Grumble passes on word for word what he was taught to his own students. Just occasionally they are things that are not directly medical.

The recent death of Henry Allingham reminded Dr Grumble of a tip he was given on his first medical firm. Who gave him this tip Dr Grumble has no idea but Dr Grumble has remembered it to this day. The tip was to talk to his patients about their experiences in the First World War. Dr G was told that they were a living link to history and that they would not live for much longer. Dr Grumble was not taught about the Great War at school. He found it difficult to grasp. He still does. But through contact with his patients he learnt something of the horrors of war. Quite often his patients would decline to talk about their experiences. But sometimes they would tell the stories of life in the trenches. Sometimes they would tell about how they were wounded. Many probably owed their lives to having been so severely wounded that they could not fight again. Others were gassed. All had lost friends.

Sometimes it is worse for those left behind. The women told stories of how their sweethearts were sent to fight never to return. Many, perhaps it was most, had never married. After the carnage the loss of life had been so great that there were just not enough men left to go round. Occasionally a handbag would be opened and Dr Grumble would be privileged to see the remains of a cherished last letter brown at the edges from oxidation. Whether these letters were carried all the time or whether they were keepsakes to be brought in to accompany the patient to hospital as a comfort at a time of special stress Dr Grumble was never sure. But reading these letters even after the many years since they had been written brought tears to the patient's eyes and had a similar effect on the young Grumble.

Dr Grumble cannot tell his students to ask their patients about the First World War. It is too late. But he does tell them to ask about their patients' experiences of the Second World War. The horrors of the Second World War do not quite match those of the Great War but occasionally you can uncover stories of incredible bravery. Recently Dr Grumble and his students were rewarded with one such tale. Dr Grumble's patient had been parachuted into France where she had worked undercover helping the French Resistance. Eventually she was arrested and was to have been taken to Paris where she would have been interrogated by the Gestapo and shot. Fortunately D-day prevented this from happening and the patient was instead sent to a concentration camp in Germany. The story is very much more exciting and interesting than that. Sadly Dr Grumble has had to take out the most interesting bits because of identifying details. He will only say that he has the highest regard for this spirited old lady and he gives thanks to the unknown teacher all those decades ago who encouraged the young Grumble to talk to his patients about their experiences of the past.


sam said...

I thought you once said you didn't do history Dr G! I was going to comment to diagree because we 'all' do history, albeit, timelines and their content, or rather, the depth of same does differ but whatever it is, recalling history is part of coping with the present as well as preparing for the uncertainties of the future .. your post is proof .. I like :-)

Dr Grumble said...

I thought you once said you didn't do history Dr G!
I can't remember saying that but it is quite likely I did. As I get older I get more and more interested in history and it seems that I must have had some interest even as a medical student.

Actually this post suddenly went off at a tangent as a lot of my posts do. I was intending to make the post a tribute to a good teacher of infectious diseases but the preamble got out of control so I decided to leave the bit I was heading for out altogether!

Dr Aust said...

Dr Aust never met his paternal grandfather, who fought at Passchendaele. But according to Dr Aust's dad, the old man attributed his survival of WW1 to two things: first, being a decent shot with a Lewis gun (which meant that as a gunner he was always a few yards back from the advancing front line of his infantry platoon); and second, Bartonella quintana, which got him "invalided out" of the line.

Ever seen a case, Dr G? I did hear it was making a comeback.

Dr Grumble said...

I haven't ever seen a case of trench fever but I think we did have one in the Grumble hospital.

Your comment brings home a well known truth that in conflicts disease often kills more people than war itself.

The 1918 'flu killed more than the Great War. Hopefully the current 'flu won't be as bad.

Anonymous said...

I met a wonderful gentleman in 'minor injuries' last year. He had fallen and had some minor injuries, which wasn't a surprise considering the dept in which I encountered him... He wasn't concerned with his injuries, preferring to show me a hideous scar on his body and telling me that after the incident with the japanese bayonette that had caused it in WWII, a trifling little fall wasn't going to get him down. His stoicism was charracteristic of people of his generation, but his story was extraordinary. It was a really rewarding encounter.

A. Medstudent

Dr Grumble said...

You learnt something Medstudent. There are these people around who will tell you what they have been through in wars and reassure you that when you impale them on some biopsy instrument or other that they won't even flinch. They never do. Others who have led cosier lives are terrified and you know that whatever you do with local anaeshesia they are going to notice it. It seems you feel what you think you are going to feel.