Le Beau Doc Sans Merci

BMJ 24 November 2001. Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1259

I met a young lady in the meads. Her hair was long, her step was light; she had intended to go to medical school, she said, but she had visited the local hospital and the junior doctors had discouraged her, and she was starting dentistry instead.

I set her on my pacing steed and all day long extolled the virtues of medical life.

“Asking a junior doctor what it’s like to be a doctor is like asking a tadpole what it’s like to be a frog,” I said.

“Consider being able to travel all across the world, the privilege of receiving the trust of our patients, the fascinating complexity and uniqueness of every case that walks into the surgery. Consider the security of tenure, a reliable income in a volatile world. Consider the independence; once you are a GP or a consultant, you are your own boss and you don’t have to suck up to nobody. Ours is a high and noble destiny, a life rich with experience, an enduring tapestry of joys and sorrows.

“We need a system of work experience for young people like you who are genuinely interested. It would be easy to determine which consultations are inappropriate for you to attend, and of course patients would be fully informed and consented. But even within these confines, it should be possible to get a taste of the real thing, and much better than learning from junior doctors or television soaps.”

The chill of icy air startled me from this reverie. We had stopped on a bleak hillside, ravens were croaking hoarsely, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was playing pinochle with an insurance salesman, and high overhead an American bomber was chucking out enough food aid to fill a small knapsack; the omens were bad. Sure enough a tin of beans plummeted down like a rocket, nearly decapitating my horse, and my student became fey and magicked. She wove a circle round me thrice, her eyes flashing, her hair floating, gratuitously acting out the wrong poem.

“La belle dame sans merci hath thee in thrall,” she exulted, then turned into a chimera, then a gorgon, then back into a girl with now rather frizzy hair before continuing, “And I’m sticking with dentistry, if you don’t mind.”

“OK,” I replied, booting her off the horse, squashing a passing nut-laden squirrel as she fell, “In that case you can walk home.”

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