Health: Dr Phil Hammond column

Albert had stumbled upon LSD and subsequently taken the world's first trip
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"Physician, heal thyself" is not the best advice I've ever come across. Indeed, if it doesn't prove that the Bible was wrong, it certainly shows St Luke was capable of serious errors of judgement as early on as chapter four. Physicians have been trying to heal themselves for centuries, with the net result being that between 9,000 and 13,000 British doctors are addicted to either drugs or alcohol. That's according to the British Medical Association. "One more tot of your finest magic healing juice, please barman."

Most dependent doctors carry on treating themselves for years without detection, safe in the knowledge that no patient or fellow doctor would dare question their professional integrity. What damage do they do? No one's quite sure. Most probably bumble on in a mediocre way with the help of a packet of Polos and a mid-afternoon nap. Even if there are only 9,000 addicted doctors, most will make a minimum of six clinical decisions a day. So each year, at least 18 million clinical decisions are made by doctors dependent on drink or drugs. And that's before anyone picks up a scalpel.

To be fair, some doctors have healed themselves with a scalpel. For example, dozens of supple surgeons have successfully managed their own vasectomies, drunk or otherwise. But most sick doctors get in a dreadful pickle when they try to sort themselves out and are much better off consulting someone else. Such as another sick doctor. There are, however, occasions when medical self-abuse can yield incredibly beneficial results, most notably when a healthy doctor decides to experiment on himself. Healthy doctors, you'll be pleased to here, are capable of making rational decisions and none more so than Australian Dr Barry Marshall.

Barry was convinced that the bacteria helicobacter pylori caused stomach ulcers, but back in 1982 his peers thought he was away with the fairies. So he asked his mate John Noakes (no relation) to knock him up a heavy suspension of the bug scraped straight off the agar plate. And he sculled it, down in one. As John put it: "It's not the sort of thing you'd want to sip down, probably." "No" confirmed Barry. "It was like swamp water, quite putrid in fact..." Way to go, Barry.

And he did. He woke at 3am with terrible stomach cramps and started a lengthy affair with his lavatory. These were extremely encouraging signs. On day eight he woke at 6am and experienced a curious vomit. "I couldn't taste any acid. It looked just like water, whatever I was bringing up - but I hadn't been drinking anything so it was quite puzzling." He later realised that the bacteria he had consumed had caused all the protective acid to disappear out of his gastric juice. After ten days of suffering, he had a celebratory endoscopy. Hurrah! He had early signs of a stomach ulcer.

"Unfortunately, my wife insisted I start taking antibiotics after that because she was worried about me getting worse or something bad happening... The antibiotics cured the ulcer, Barry became a medical hero and further research proved that eradicating the bug not only cures peptic ulcers but decreases the likelihood of relapses and saves money in the long run because of a reduction in the prescription of more expensive acid-suppressing drugs. Alas, good research takes aeons to get into everyday practice so many of your ulcers are probably still infested with Barry's putrid swamp water.

Dr Albert Hoffman was also a keen self-experimenter. In 1943, he swallowed the drug extract of a fungus which he hoped would help people with breathing difficulties. Unfortunately the drug preferred to camp out in his mind, giving him vivid hallucinations on his bike ride home. "It was so unusual that I really got afraid that I had become insane..."

Yes, Albert had found LSD and subsequently taken the world's first trip. Not quite enough for a Nobel Prize, but ever-lasting adoration from the acid heads.

No Nobel Prize either for Dr Pierre Bestain, who was so convinced he'd discovered the antidote to Death Cap Mushroom that he wolfed a whole plateful, fried with a knob of butter. He survived, told the tale and word soon spread of his amazing antidote. Alas, when others tried it to treat unintentional overdoses, it failed without fail. Pierre, it seems, was just genetically immune to the mushrooms. His cure was an irrelevance.

So what can we deduce? Certainly one person's own experience doesn't constitute scientific proof. You need to road test your wonder drug on more than your own gene pool before you flog it to the public. True, being your own guinea pig has its limits and it's not without considerable risk, but I'd rather be treated by a self-experimenter than a self-treater. Or better yet, by a female doctor who does neither.

Comments