Saturday, 14 January 2012

New Procedures and Old Truths

Today I went back to UCLH to meet some new people and in the process have my fitness assessed for the forthcoming operation (now due on 18 January). Specifically pre-assessment focuses on one’s ability to cope with anaesthesia, in my case 10 minutes or so of unconsciousness.

I made my way to the clinic over a bridge in the hospital atrium in whose floor were inset enlarged photographs of medical life in the early decades of the 20th century. One was of a woman closely resembling our own dear Queen standing rather stiffly beside a bed made more child-friendly by the presence of cuddly kangaroo and plush teddy bear. The little girl in the bed and the nurse standing by looked very chuffed to be in the presence of royalty and the shot leaves one in little doubt that the visit of Queen Mary would have aided the patient’s recovery no end. Surely the late Queen smiled on occasion but are there any photos showing this? Perhaps, as with our present monarch, the everyday cast of whose features tends to the solemn and inscrutable, Queen Mary’s smile was a sunny benediction.

It was all pretty quick and I was in and out of all three stages of the pre-assessment in just over an hour. Stage one was a series of questions about my medical history from a nurse, who also weighed me and measured my height, as well as giving me a couple of leaflets about the joys of anaesthetics to read on the train home plus instructions not to eat after 2am on the day of the op or drink after 5am. I find myself more apprehensive about being knocked out next week than I was the last time this happened when, aged 12, I had several teeth extracted to make room for more.

If the first stage was rather dead pan, stage two was a bit more jolly and the quickest electrocardiogram I have yet undergone. The nurse conducting the process said that this was because I was relaxed. It is reassuring to know that I am doing something right although, if this is relaxed, show me tense.

After I had taken the printout of the heart examination back to the reception clerk, it was time for the final stage of the pre-assessment: the now all too familiar blood test. Going about his work the phlebotomist sang along quietly to Adele as the sound of her latest release drifted across from the radio on the opposite side of the examination suite and we found a brief rapport in our shared appreciation of her wonderful voice. On this occasion I did not have to wait for the result of the test, trusting that it would be added to my surgical file in due course.

Free to go, I had time to spare before I was due in Richmond for lunch and so I made my way to the British Museum, but not before heeding the advice displayed here and cleaning my hands with the gel provided.

Animated virtual nurse projected within a perspex outline giving free advice by the hospital exit.
Part of a plan to have all leadership and advice dispensed in time by human simulacra.
Hmmmm, come to think of it, has anyone seen the real Andrew Lansley recently...?

I walked to the museum along streets that I have long loved, but whose rich heritage I came to value with a new intensity when I trod them with my wife and brother while undergoing chemo last summer. On the journey I noted the blue plaque commemorating the first general anaesthetic procedure carried out in England. In 1846 the house at 52 Gower Street, no longer standing, was the home of an American botanist, Francis Boott. Here, on 19 December of that year, a dentist named James Robinson removed a tooth of a Miss Lonsdale under ether anaesthesia. Two days later at University College Hospital, Robert Liston amputated the leg of a chauffeur, Frederick Churchill, while a medical student called William Squires gave an ether anaesthetic. It is comforting to know that there has been such a long history of pain management at my favourite hospital. Probably not much of a pre-assessment in those early days though, let alone soothing leaflets in plain English.

Once at the British Museum I rode the lift to the Upper Floor and ambled through rooms gleaming with priceless artefacts to the displays of European articles from the 16th century, my chosen period of study. Here I saw mazers, wooden drinking bowls for shared use that came to be replaced by individual vessels, particularly among the more affluent. Also chalices and plate, produced in greater numbers as the Protestant Reformation bedded in and the common churchgoer increasingly expected to take Holy Communion rather than that this should be the privilege of the priest alone. There were elaborately decorative gilt clothes fastenings–hooks and clasps–both on display and illustrated in small reproductions of contemporary portraits so that one could see the devices in use.

In a separate display was the Waddesdon Bequest, the gift of a Victorian member of the Rothschild family. This is a staggeringly impressive collection of craftsmanship, particularly in religious objects from mainland Europe. This little item held my gaze for many minutes. I never knew such things existed.

A rosary bead carved in boxwood in the early 1500s, Flemish work.
Such exquisitely crafted objects were produced to aid the devotions of the wealthy and the nobility and were highly prized. The bead measures no more than a couple of inches in diameter and opens up to reveal intricate scenes from Scripture in high relief.
The uppermost scene here is of the Crucifixion and in it the spears of the soldiers are as fine as hairs.
Do go and see it if you can.

On the more vernacular side I spent some time contemplating trenchers: in this case circles of wood, like large coasters, whose plain side was used for the serving of various sweetmeats at banquets and the like. Once the goodies were consumed, the trencher was turned over to reveal its painted side decorated, for example, with painted flowers, scrolls and various other curlicues framing short verses setting out various contemporary conceits. This verse sets out a bittersweet truth of human experience. Enjoy the antique spelling.

There is no sweet within our power
That is not sawled with some swore.
For so it fawles out now and then,
The worser luck the wiser men.

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