Fun with medicine?

family & parenting / Thursday, March 8th, 2012

I love Citizen Kane. I’ve been round the houses in formulating my view, seen its bombastic flaws and stupid overindulgence and returned to loving the audacity of the hero and, furthermore, the way this chimes with the audacity of the film-maker behind it. It is hard to watch this canonical film, though it is utterly watchable, and not be rendered slightly breathless (and jealous) by the brash, stylish, competent, overconfident, zeal of the youth on display. It is like a glorious impertinence both from the lead character, Kane, and the director behind the lens (also playing Kane, obviously) Orson Welles. The whole picture (front, back and centre) is oozing and itching with reckless talent.

Most people sum it up with a quote from Welles himself which runs along the lines of a film set being the biggest and most brilliant train set a lad ever had. It captures the playfulness and excitement of the whole movie. I prefer a line from the film, in which the fresh faced upstart (who will become the destroyed and destructive newspaper magnate the film is lampooning) remarks: ‘I thought it might be fun to run a newspaper’.

Understatement and overstatement, wisdom and ignorance, intuition, initiative, self-belief, self-deception. There they are, all in one line, which I have possibly misquoted. Awesome. I don’t bring this up to show off that I (genuinely, no really) love a film often cited as one of the best ever made in high faluting critical circles. But because the idea of fun has been playing on my mind. More specifically this idea of thinking something might be fun, and getting an kick in the tits for your hubris in doing so.

During one of my hospital appointments this week, I was told I was run down. This isn’t the first time this year, or this month. Getting un-run-down is now very close to the top of my To Do List. I’m starting to listen because I don’t much like passing out, unnecessary complications or cancer scares. When I was told this, though, the consultant surgeon also asked: ‘have you been under much stress lately?’

Of course I have, though I think most people are. We live in a crazed world. For many of us our responsibilities (work, dependents, partners, financial commitments, social life) are stuck together with the slightly flawed entanglement of half-chewed Stickle Bricks. All entwined, slightly wobbly and holding fast only but for the grace of God. But I duly listed some highlights.

She asked, ‘And Mr Thatwoman? How’s he?’

‘Pretty tired and sad about it all too’ I acknowledged.

‘Hmmm,’ she said, drifting off into space: ‘I bet there was a time a few years ago when the two of you thought it might be fun to start a family’.

Fuck, I thought, yes we did. That is it. We did see it as an adventure. We were excited. How did it get so scary and downbeat? Is it our fault for looking for fun, hoping for it, wanting our family gang to be exciting? Shit. I cried, once in the toilets, though that was also about the humiliation of kindness from the mammogram lady, a second time at lunch with my wise best friend just before faint-gate, and a third, later this week, again in the hospital toilets, because I returned for a physiotherapy appointment coincidentally in the same building and felt entirely sorry for myself.

The doctor wasn’t being quite as tactless as it first seemed though. And having, after a relatively uneventful 20s, spent my 30s so excessively in medical company, I am interested in how much value I place in what doctors say, their possible judgement and the strange truth that sometimes their lack of certainty or answers is the most refreshing thing of all.

I almost think to quote directly as above misrepresents her. The comment was imbued with empathy, and a sort of softly sad, wry knowingness about the toughness of the best of times – it came, after all, from someone who presumably spends half her days looking at knockers and the rest talking about cutting them up and off and telling people the shittiest news imaginable.

I think it was a form of empathy not just about expectation and reality but about strings of events and the weary wariness they give us about hoping for joy, the perils of thinking too much on outcomes and the endless hurdling of life itself. We all know how one slightly unlucky thing (in my case a shit birth) can lead to another (complications) can lead to another (depression) can lead to another (a shit pregnancy) and so on. But when that happens to you, you feel boring and stupid and like your life is a sitcom, or saga (well, I did). And though we know that once you’ve had a run of rum luck you get less and less able to handle more unpredictable developments like sudden illness or injury, we carry on and enable ourselves to do that with increasingly vain hope that no more shit will come our way and things will ‘be okay’. This will be our year, we think. We deserve a bloody break. Come on life, give me my lemonade ready-made today, no more sour fruit for Christ’s sake.

I mean really we know she’s a cruel and vicious creature, Fate. Her that throws poor health down (and misfortune) with such ardent arbitrary force. And it is easy to forget that we often have little agency in dodging her thunderstrikes. But we also know the sun shines, nice stuff happens and so we are almost immune to seeing karma as the insidious bitch she is. And so we hope. And we carry on.

Being a doctor must be very hard. People look to you for reassurance which, presumably, you often just can’t give. And answers which are complicated or incomplete. But they sit there, on plastic chairs, in their best bra and knickers, clutching a test result, and ask why, and how and when and what for and what if? I suspect most of the time there’s little you can say, however much you’d like to offer something. There are crass doctors – who dehumanise you. And others who are ultimately almost friends – my own GP screamed with laughter in all the right places when I told her about fainting in the noodle bar after a cancer scare last week, though she also checked my BP and made ooh and ahh noises too (and once, a few years ago, sang me a song when I hit rock bottom).

Though more often I think doctors are merely immersed in their world of answers and procedures, to protect themselves from the chaos of your world, that world filled with illness and ignorance and panic. I guess they do it so they are better able to help, even if it distances their world of the curers from ours, the world of the afflicted.

Like the very nice one I met last December when my son was v sick, who remarked (sense a theme?) on how wrung out I looked. ‘It has been a busy week,’ I said. ‘My son has been at the GPs most days and to A&E twice. Yesterday in an ambulance. It was pretty awful’

‘Why?’ he asked. ‘What happened in the ambulance?’

‘There was a panda with fucking a machete!’ I reply (in my head when I think about it now). At the time I just faltered a bit and made a cracking sound.

‘Oh God’ he muttered, snapped out by my cracking. ‘Sorry. Yes. Must have been awful’.

And such a child am I that this affirmation almost made my day. Because apart from a definitive – your examination is clear (WHOOP) – maybe the best you can be offered is the truth, inconclusive though it is.

A few weeks ago we got a letter about Newborn from a boss man consultant we saw about the whole sorry sack of shit of his health-life. He, the Professor, had been personable, kind, relatively reassuring (if realistic) about possible future problems. He had the confidence of grey hairs and experience and wrangled us as well as he wrangled our son. His letter outlined our visit and his assessment of our child. His conclusion? The only thing second to a clear bill of health: ‘I think he has had bad luck…’ followed by the statement that underneath this annoying veneer of calamity he is a perfectly normal, well-developed lovely little boy. When we read it my husband and I were standing on the landing and laughing. We reminisced about the day of the appointment when our son had charged around wheezing and flirting and throwing stuff, precociously drinking water from a glass, stealing pens, shouting ‘HIYA’ and roaring with laughter. We remarked that regardless of his ‘no medical answers’ state, Newborn has found his own. His favourite toy of late is a Calpol box and an empty syringe.

‘He’s a lot of fun too,’ Mr Thatwoman said.

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