BMJ 03 February 2001 Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:307
Bula Matari they called him, “The Breaker of Rocks.” His implacable courage and indomitable will had driven him headlong across jungle, mountain, and river, and he bestrode Africa like a colossus. Now, his quest at last concluded, he stepped forward to shake hands with the frail elderly man whom he had sought relentlessly for so long.
“Dr Livingstone, I presume,” he said, his voice thick with suppressed emotion and consummated longing. But the legend does not tell the whole story, for Henry Morton Stanley had something more to say: “By the way, Doc, I have a bit of a cough; could I have some antibiotics? And what about an X-ray, my leg’s giving me jip?”
Once a doctor, always a doctor; ours is a high and noble destiny. The same austere moral code that ordains that we stop at road traffic accidents also compels us to listen to strangers on the train recounting how they discovered an ingrowing toenail protruding from their scrotum. We can never entirely lay down our onerous responsibilities. Wherever there are sick people there will always be doctors, with the unfortunate corollary that wherever there are doctors, there will always be sick people. Once you become a doctor, everyone else in the world immediately falls into the category of “patient.”
After all these years I am still proud to be a doctor. I still remember the first time I put on a white coat and hung a stethoscope around my neck; like the first time I had sex (I still have the receipt), although without the sweat and with less protection, and with more ridicule from those more experienced.
We are never naked, we wear the silken cloak of our esoteric knowledge wherever we go, and sometimes, sometimes, we can still receive the respect due to our calling. Even as late as the 1980s one of the less self-indulgent Doonesbury cartoon strips had an emaciated person with AIDS telling his parents that he contracted the disease from a resident at the University of California in Los Angeles. As his father bows his head in grief, his mother says, “Wow, you dated a doctor?”
My Auntie Mary was a simple country woman, and to her, doctors were different from us, a kind of aristocracy. I remember telling her I was going to become a doctor and that I was off to medical school for six years. I could see her thinking about it and she went away and came back a while later and said, “And can you become a doctor just like that?”
Footnote; the BMJ’s spellchecker corrected “Bula Matari” to “Bull Materia” which just goes to show