Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 4 August 2012

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I was on my back on the operating table for my long-awaited minor op. Three lesions had to come off under local anaesthetic: two on my chest, one on my shoulder. A Dr Mukopadhyay wielded the scalpel. This slight, shy, otherwordly man surprised me at the outset by diffidently placing a comforting, perhaps healing, perhaps textbook hand on my shoulder and leaving it there until I ducked my shoulder away in embarrassment.

Once he’d begun cutting, Dr Mukopadhyay kept at it for over an hour with all the care and concentrated attention of a master watchmaker. When he voiced an instruction, he did so softly and humbly. As Dr Mukopadhyay is a bit of a mouthful, the nurses dancing attendance on him, one male and two females, called him Dr Muk. It was like being at the dentist: there was nothing to do but stare up at the big round light and listen to the rock music playing on a radio somewhere, and to the nurses’ comments as they went about their business.  

A savvy, calm nurse in her fifties worked closely with Dr Muk, often anticipating his requirements. She didn’t say much, either.  The other female nurse, a raddled-looking woman into her sixties I’d guess, was wearing black socks with multicoloured love hearts on them. She was in charge of the pieces of flesh that Dr Muk excised from my chest.  She had to take them away to the other side of the room and package them up for the lab for later analysis. However, she wasn’t competent to do this, for some reason, and spent the best part of the hour struggling under a backlog. She couldn’t find the right pots. She couldn’t open the pots. She didn’t know how she should label the pots. She didn’t know which plastic bags to put the pots in, or where to find any. The rest of the team spoke to her always with patience and affection, as though she was a moron beyond reach, but a lovable one, and in any case there was no level of incompetence with which they themselves couldn’t identify, or wouldn’t tolerate.

The male nurse was called Ron. Extensive tattooing was visible under the short sleeves of his blue shift. Now and again Dr Muk asked that an entry be logged on a recording form. This was one of Ron’s jobs. At one point Dr Muk needed him to log the words ‘right intra-clavicle’. ‘Who?’ shouted Ron, coarsely, from the other side of the room. ‘Right intra-clavicle,’ repeated Dr Muk softly. I heard footsteps then frantic shuffling of paper. ‘Right what?’ said Ron. ‘Intra-clavicle,’ said Dr Muk. Pause. ‘Does anyone know how to spell clavicle?’ said Ron, introducing the fun element of a quiz into the proceedings. ‘C-L-A-V-I-C-L-E,’ I said. ‘Give that man a cream bun,’ said Ron.

Another of Ron’s jobs was to extract dressings from the industrial-sized cartons stacked in a corner and hand them to the nurse closely assisting Dr Muk. Each time he was asked for a dressing, he’d sigh heavily and say, ‘More expense.’ Or, ‘No wonder the NHS is in the state it’s in.’  

Seconds before being led down to the operating theatre, I’d been watching protesting NHS workers on the lunchtime local news bulletin. Encouraged now by Ron’s levity, I said: ‘I see you’re all taking a cut in your pay and conditions to pay for my self-inflicted, cosmetic surgery, which can only be a good thing in my opinion.’ This struck a chord with all except the woman with the hearts on her socks still battling among the specimen pots. ‘Not us!’ chorused Ron and the hitherto taciturn theatre nurse. Even in Dr Muk I sensed for the first time a momentary flicker of sympathetic interest in matters temporal and non-medical. The pay cut referred to didn’t apply to their particular health authority, they said. Not yet, anyway.

The subject of pay and conditions led to discussion about the NHS’s current ills, in which both Ron and the hitherto taciturn theatre nurse spiritedly and bitterly blamed the senseless insertion of an entire new level of managers for the mess. ‘Middle managers,’ insisted Ron, circling the rottenness for me as precisely as Dr Muk’s newest scalpel. ‘Strips,’ said the gentle Dr Muk, refocusing everyone’s mind, including mine, on the job in hand. ‘More expense!’ wailed Ron, going over and rummaging violently in one of the cardboard boxes.

Suddenly Dr Mukopadhyay leaned back from his handiwork and humbly indicated that his assistant could now wash my chest in iodine again because he’d finished. I caught his eye and sincerely thanked him for taking so much trouble over it. He looked down and briefly held mine with what I can best describe as a profound, modest and perhaps mystical love for humanity — in which I was included. ‘Not at all,’ he said quietly.