Everyone is important - but only to themselves, unfortunately

The things that are incredibly special to us are simply routine to those who deal with them every day
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The Independent Culture
THREE YEARS ago, in the maternity unit of the University of Virginia Medical Centre, in Charlottesville, daughters were born on the same day to 16-year-old Whitney Rogers and 27-year-old secretary Paula Johnson. But the babies that accompanied each young mother home were not the ones that they had given birth to. Somehow they had been switched.

And switched they would have remained, had it not been for Carlton Conley, the partner of Ms Johnson. Estranged - in the fashion of all too many young fathers these days - Carlton was asked to pay towards his child's upkeep. He was reluctant and began to question the award for the usual reason: that little Callie Marie looked nothing like him. Now, I have not seen a picture of Mr Conley, but to most men it is something of a relief that their daughters do not resemble them. It is better all round that girls look like their mothers.

Nevertheless, so obsessed did CC become that he demanded a DNA test to establish the child's paternity. The test was done and revealed to the horrified mother that not only was Callie Marie not her father's daughter - she was not her mother's, either. Ninety miles away Rebecca Chittum, brought up by Whitney Rogers since 1995, was the real Callie Marie.

Now, suppose for a moment that Mr Conley had not demanded a DNA test (even in the US I would imagine that most men still don't require them). In that case, of course, the mix-up could never have been discovered, and Callie Marie and Rebecca would have grown up not knowing that they were the "wrong" children.

By now you are probably ahead of me. The implication of the Callie Marie case is that this kind of mishap happens not infrequently and is only rarely discovered. All over the world women are carting the fruits of other loins back to cots and nurseries and bringing them up as their own. It could even be you...

I am unlikely to be sued by a Virginian hospital, Ms Johnson has other things to worry about, and Ms Rogers - tragically - died in a recent road accident, so I am safe to indulge in a bit of speculation about how this mishap occurred. And there are really only three possible explanations.

The first is that one of the mothers exercised a bizarre bit of consumer choice and - thinking that someone else's baby looked more appetising than her own offspring - proceeded to switch the name tags that are routinely attached to newborns (usually in the delivery room).

The second possibility is that some third party made the switch for mischievous reasons that are not easily fathomed. And the third is that the hospital did not tag the children at all or attached the tags wrongly. I think you will agree that, of the three scenarios, the third is the most plausible.

Now let us visit another medical establishment, this time in Wales. The Pontcae surgery, in Merthyr Tydfil, like so many other practices throughout the country, recently decided to offer its patients an extra range of alternative services. One of the GPs, a Dr Kevin Thomas, was trained to administer the ancient Chinese treatment of acupunture, and one of his first clients was Diane Thomas (no relation), a 33-year-old sciatica sufferer.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, Thomas the Sciatica lay on her front in the surgery, while Thomas the Doctor gently inserted 12 long needles into pressure points on her back, neck, feet, legs and arms. The procedure complete, Ms Thomas was told that she should rest for 40 minutes, after which Dr Thomas would return and remove the needles.

Forty minutes came and went. Ms Thomas probably fell into a light doze. And then another 40 minutes went by. By which time the sufferer was growing both restive and uncomfortable. But what was she to do? She was naked in front and covered in ingrowing prickles at the back. There was no question, therefore, of her getting up and walking into the crowded waiting room. Ms Thomas waited some more.

By 6.15pm she could hear the muffled sounds of the health centre staff preparing to go home. But, for all her cries and lamentations, they could not hear her. The windows were shut, the doors were bolted, the lights turned off and the building deserted - save for the human porcupine in Dr Thomas's office.

This story has a happy ending. An hour or so after the last receptionist had driven off in the last Micra, the cleaners arrived. Their surprise at finding a heaving, pink pincushion may be imagined. Even then Ms Thomas's tribulations were not entirely at an end. The cleaners were understandably reluctant to touch the needles themselves, a task that was only completed when another partner in the practice arrived.

So what had happened? It was very simple, really. Dr Thomas had been called out on an emergency, and had forgotten all about the woman with the needles in her back. Only much later, as the cleaners were calling for help, did he recall (with, I guess, a rather unpleasant jolt), that he had unfinished business.

How can cases such as this, and that of Callie Marie, be possible? They can happen because the things that are incredibly special to us - death, birth, moving house, divorce, acupuncture and so on - are simply routine to those who deal with them every day. There is - very often - an extraordinary mismatch between the importance that we attach to an event and its significance for others.

Take an operation. Most of us do not have many operations. I have only had one, and it was a silly little op. But I was as keenly aware of what could go wrong with it as any bad flier is of all the bits of wiring and hydraulics that can possibly lead to air disaster. The anaesthetist might get his measurements wrong, the surgeon might be menopausal. I only have one body, and this is it.

But from the surgeon's point of view, I am the fifth lump of snoring flesh that has passed this way today. We may have exchanged four words earlier, none of them interesting. There is no reason to make any more or less effort with this incision and this suture than with all the others. It has been (yawn) a long day.

Likewise with your routine screening. Routine for them, not for you. They have been screening and screening and screening, month in, month out. Millions of breasts, billions of ovaries, infinities of cervixes. Yet every time you go along, you are aware of the horrid particularity of the situation. This process is to discover whether you have cancer and, if you have, to treat it as quickly as possible.

But they aren't blase about the Royal Family, are they? I bet everyone knows about it the second that Princess Anne's mammogram is pinned to the hospital wall. Elton John is unlikely to be operated upon by someone who regards the removal of his appendix as just another blob in the bowl.

The answer, and we all know it, is to make a fuss, make ourselves stand out, to be memorable somehow. We have to make the surgeon want to do his or her very, very best with us; to impress upon the holiday rep the great difference between our situation and that of the others stranded in Bahrain. Pomposity is one way, bribery is another. Humour, I hope, is the best of all.