Theodore Dalrymple

Second opinion | 20 November 2004

Compared with the doctors in a hospital like mine, Sisyphus had it easy

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Many of my non-medical friends complain of the pointlessness of their jobs. What they do has no meaning, they say, no intrinsic worth, apart from paying the bills. My friends feel like caged mice which run incessantly inside wheels: an expense of spirit in a waste of effort.

‘At least,’ they say, ‘your job is worthwhile.’

‘In what sense?’ I ask.

‘You help people.’

If only they knew. Compared with the doctors in a hospital like mine, Sisyphus had it easy. Light recreation such as his would come as a relief to us.

There is, for example, a lady well-known to our hospital who attends every two weeks or so with an overdose. If she does not attend for a week or two further, we begin to wonder what is wrong with her: misjudged the dose, perhaps? She was here again last week. Actually, I rather like her; she has a sense of the absurd, which is a saving grace for all but the most determined villain.

I asked her whether it was her boyfriend again — the one she can’t stand, but whom she allows into her house because he’d break in anyway if she didn’t — who had driven her to the pills.

‘You’ve got it in one,’ she said.

She might have learnt nothing by her overdoses, but I had learnt something.

‘What’s he been up to this time?’

‘He opened up the cuts on his arm again, didn’t he?’

‘How?’

‘He sat there and pulled the stitches out.’

‘In front of you?’

‘He wouldn’t do it otherwise.’

Of course, the original cuts were self-inflicted. I suppose this is what counts round here as a declaration of undying love: greater love hath no man than this, that he pulls out his stitches and opens up his cuts for his girl.

‘Why did he cut himself in the first place?’ I asked.

‘Because he hit me.’

‘And why did you take the tablets this time?’

‘It was a stupid game.’ She explained. ‘Well, we got a bowl of tablets and put it on the table. Then we took it in turns to toss a coin and whoever won could say which tablet the other had to take. It was like Russian roulette, only with tablets.’

‘And what happened?’

‘When I won, I made him take the antibiotics what he was supposed to take for his wrist but wouldn’t.’

‘And when he won?’

‘Painkillers.’

‘How long did this go on?’

‘A long time. We’d been drinking, see.’

No! You could have knocked me down with a feather.

‘Then he said he wasn’t feeling very well. He called an ambulance and got in. He never even asked me how I was, and I was the one taking the painkillers. So when he’d gone, I thought, f—–k it, and swallowed all what was left in the bowl.’

Fortunately, her loved one had left the hospital before she arrived. He had signed the form discharging himself:

I wish to be discharged immediately. I understand that this is against medical advice. I acknowledge that I have been informed of the dangers of doing so and I accept full responsibility for the consequences of my decision.

Signed: F—–k you.

I moved on to the next patient. She had taken an overdose in front of her boyfriend.

‘Did he try to stop you?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘Did he call an ambulance?’

‘No.’

‘What did he do?’

‘Nothing.’

‘And how would you describe him?’

She thought for a moment, as if choosing her words.

‘Very caring.’