Three weeks into the job, and the white coat started going to my head...

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"This student refuses to take medicine seriously. He does not deserve a house job at ... [name of famous London hospital]." Yes sir, that's my reference. Did you guess? It seems a bit churlish to name the surgeon who spiked my career, especially now I'm so famous, but suffice to say that if a famous tank-engine was ever canonised, they could name it after him. Medical references are still a pretty private affair, with just the odd enlightened soul offering to share it with the recipient before distribution. I didn't discover just how popular I was with the good folk at St Thingy's until my 10th housejob application. "You interview very well," said a consultant cardiologist, "but your reference is a stinker. Like to hear it?" As it turned out, I didn't.

Thereafter, I abandoned my reference altogether and turned up to interviews without one. First stop, Frenchay hospital in Bristol. "You interview very well," said a consultant surgeon, "but I can't find your reference."

"It's back in London."

"It doesn't travel well."

"That bad, eh?" (Long pause.) "Who wrote it?"

"Mr X, the neck and kidney surgeon."

"Oh, isn't he a dreadful little man?!! Welcome aboard."

Many doctors develop a rose-tinted view of their first housejob but Frenchay hospital certainly exceeded my expectations. After three years of being dumped on by a load of fat masons at St Thingy's, it was refreshing to find consultants who treated their juniors as fellow vertebrates. Indeed all the staff, from domestics down to the doctors, seemed to be on good terms. Sister Rae on Ward 13 greeted me every morning with "Hello Phil. Come to mother and have a nice cup of tea." Sister Jane on Ward 7 was equally accommodating, until she caught me defacing a nurse education poster. "There are four kinds of staff," the poster read. "Those who make things happen. Those who help things happen. Those who watch things happen and those who don't know what is happening." Underneath I added a fifth - "Those who couldn't give a toss." Jane was very angry and made me rewrite the whole poster in my best handwriting. Quite right, too.

As for the patient side of things, that went swimmingly. All novice house- officers are potentially lethal weapons and their inaugural month of August is known as the Killing Season. Fatalities can, however, be avoided if you're humble enough to ask for help (I quickly learnt) and the help is there. As well as some very supportive nurses (much nicer than the old witches you see on Cardiac Arrest), I was fortunate enough to have another house officer, a senior house officer, a registrar and a senior registrar shielding my inadequacies from the consultant. While they did all the tricky bits with knives and needles, I'd learn to speak Bristol from the patients. "Let's get this clear Mr Chedzoy. You've got an ideal it's the diarrhoeal that's making your hernial hurt?"

Three weeks into the job and the white coat started going to my head. It's amazing the power that a piece of clothing can give you, and most 23-year-olds don't know how to handle it. With a white coat on, you can stick your finger in somebody's backside within a minute of meeting them. A bit like being in the Young Conservatives, really. And as for the aphrodisiac qualities, well, I, a pasty, freckle-faced four-eyes who'd never had a girlfriend in his life, was suddenly transformed into Dr Love-Sex. I used to strut around the wards like a fat ginger Chippendale talking down to the nurses and across the patients. And then I realised it wasn't me people were worshipping, it was the white coat. You could let a Rottweiler loose on the wards in a white coat and the patients would say, "He's a marvellous doctor that one. Ever so friendly the way he comes up and licks your face." "I don't like the way he cocks his leg on me barley sugars, though." "Still, he's gotta learn somehow."

So where's all this leading? Well, the latest batch of house-persons will soon be released on an increasingly suspecting public and not all of them will be lucky enough to work in places like Frenchay. Some will end up in mason city, others in the inner city and few will go surfing in Cornwall. As a lecturer I'm used to giving pat bits of advice, so to the new recruits and the patients they practise on I say don't be fooled by the white coat. And when the going gets tough, remember the three Ps. Pace yourself, pamper yourself and piss yourself laughing.