GP Magazine 23 May 2012

When I was a junior doctor in a rural hospital, the local community had been fundraising for years for an ultrasound scanner, which back in the early eighties was the very latest thing.Eventually, after innumerable guest teas and raffles and sponsored walks and beard-shaves and circumcisions, a new machine was purchased for £10,000, a lot of money in those days. An ultrasound scan was at that time every patient’s deepest heart’s desire, and to point out that it would be bugger-all use would have been an unpopular stance.

People came from miles to see it, and being the size of a small house, it was an impressive sight. All bells and whistles, it seemed to be at the cutting edge of science; ‘like walking on the moon’, a man described it, a man whose surname, coincidentally, was Mooney.

Trouble was, no one knew how to use it; the radiologist was about a thousand years old, show him anything but a chest X-ray and he’d get confused and forget his name, and there was no money to employ a new one. So the scanner was stuck in the high-tech room, the purpose of which was to look like a high-tech room, as if high-tech stuff was being done there; in fact nothing ever got done, we just kept stuff.

But I learned form this experience that Knowledge is Power, and a few years later I was senior house officer  (well, acting registrar, really) in a special care baby ward ward when a new-fangled state-of-the-art monitoring device was delivered.

I was the only one on the ward at the time, and when the rep showed me how to work it, I became the de facto expert. My street-cred went up like a rocket, and from being the lowest of the low in the pecking order, I was launched into the stratosphere, and bestrode the hospital like a pudgy, prematurely balding colossus.

Not a day would pass without me getting an urgent call because the machine was honking in distress. Usually it was something ridiculously simple, but for the sake of my reputation, I always put on a proper theatrical show for my audience; thoughtful expression, furrowed brow, twiddling knobs and pressing buttons like I was splitting the atom.

As a bonus I used to throw in a bit of implied criticism of my colleagues. Nothing too overt, just a subtle tut-tut, a raising of a laconic eyebrow, or occasionally, ‘You mean they haven’t calibrated it?’ Undermining other junior doctors was an essential ingredient of career progression in those days; what fun we had.
If the audience was sufficiently gullible, which was pretty often, I’d throw in a few cryptic remarks about oxygen saturation or CO2levels.

Oddly, the more senior the audience, the easier the sell. The consultants were dear old chaps; they meant well, bless their little hearts, but they were utterly baffled by the advance of science.

‘When you see the red light blinking,’ I’d explain patiently (because I was always taught to humour old folks), ‘that means the machine is on.’

‘It’s wonderful,’ old Bonzo would say, scratching his head in bewilderment.

And it was also a brilliant excuse for skiving off work. If there was an influx of admissions, while everyone else was busy as bees, I’d be found on the machine, doing the knob thing and inspecting print-outs with magisterial diligence.

On the last day, I had to choose my successor; I spotted him at once, chewing gum morosely at the back of the orientation class. There’s a likely lad, I thought, he could do with a leg-up.

‘Use this gift wisely, grasshopper,’ I told him.


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