Phil Hammond MD

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"You should be fine ... I've already had my brain tumour." This sort of cryptic reassurance is what doctors give to sick doctors. Here a GP (Gavin) was comforting a fellow GP (me) who had very bad headaches and vomiting and thought he was going to die. Brain tumours are mercifully rare, and each GP is likely to see one, or rather a patient with one, in his or her professional lifetime. Gavin had already seen his, so it would be statistically unlikely for me to join the club. Unfortunately two of my friends, both younger than me, were recently found to have brain tumours (one benign, one not so lucky) so the old "one in a lifetime" line was less of a comfort than it might have been.

Calling out the doctor was, however, a once in a lifetime experience. I'd been vomiting like that nice woman in The Exorcist for three days and as for the headache - well, I've never known pain like it, doctor. When it persisted long enough for me to miss two episodes of Eastenders, the GP was summoned. Gavin was excellent - friendly, kind, thorough - but I could tell from his expression that I was headed for hospital. "This vomiting - it's always in the mornings and relieves the headaches?" "Yes" "That's slightly* worrying". "Yes." "What do you think we should do?" "You tell me - you're the well doctor."

So to hospital, to see a consultant neurologist. "I can't find anything much on examination, but we ought to do a CT scan and a lumbar puncture." That's what I love about neurologists. None of this "What are your concerns?/ You must be very worried/ Would you like me to hug you?" - just crisp, courteous, clinical efficiency. The CT scanner was a bit noisy and it pinched my love handles but Praise the Lord, it showed a larger than average brain without any tumour but packed full of fresh and amusing insights into medicine. (Note: This is a joke. CT scans are very clever but they can't spot insights. You need an MRI scan for those.)

As for the lumbar puncture, well, I wasn't looking forward to a needle in the spine but the registrar had seemed competent when I'd met him a few hours earlier. Imagine my surprise when his junior trotted round the corner. Not just any junior, but one I'd taught communication skills to as a student just two years ago. "What are you like with pain?" said George. (To those who question the value of my communication skills training, imagine what he might have said without it.) I felt sorry for George - fancy having to stick a needle in your teacher - but he was up to the task. First he had to get teacher to strip down to his boxer shorts and curl up in the foetal position. Then he had to anaesthetise him. "I'm going to use a yellow needle," said George "Great," said I (yellow equals small). "I'm colour blind though, so I have to be careful."

George gives a great anaesthetic, which was just as well as it took him three goes to do the lumbar puncture. "I'm in slightly* the wrong place here (pause). Where did you train?" "Cambridge and St Thomas." "Have you done many lumbar punctures yourself?" "Yes, but not on myself." "Nurse, could I have another needle?" At last George was in and my spinal fluid was dripping out into bottles. He labelled them, filled in the forms and took them all the way down to the labs to get them done pronto. Unfortunately, he left his bleep by the bed and after it'd gone off for the sixth time I felt obliged to answer it. The voice on the other end sounded senior. "Is that George?" "George isn't here." "Where is he?" "He's gone to the labs." "Who are you?" "I'm a patient. Who are you?" Cue dead phone.

Two hours later, the results were back and so was the consultant to give me them. "You've got 100 white cells in your CSF. I should say you've had a viral meningitis."

"Will the children get it?" "No." "Can I go now?" "Yes but don't be a typical doctor and drink large amounts of alcohol." "No, Sir and thank- you". As I left at 7pm, full of praise for the NHS, the consultant and all his team were still on the wards putting in hours they would never be paid for. I thanked George and asked him what job he was doing next. "Haematology - so it shouldn't be too bad." Leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma - not too bad? Whatever is the world coming to?

* Note medical over-reliance on the word "slightly".

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