Post Script to previous “touch” blogs.

A tale of “one city (and two doctors)”.

Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular professes a reputation which is “second to none” for fine doctors. Names such as Lister, Black, Beatson and McCall Anderson (to name but a few) just roll off the tongue: and what great pioneers – and characters too, to all accounts – they really were! Their mastery of the “science” of medicine in their day was and is undisputed.

But what – I sometimes find myself wondering – about their grasp on and command of the “art” of medical practice in their day-to-day contact with patients? Fortunately there are one or two volumes still around, which chronicle the histories of the great hospitals of Glasgow, e.g. the Royal infirmary, Victoria infirmary, Western infirmary and Southern General Hospital, which continue to provide interesting and informative little cameos of medical practice and nursing care, as it was dispensed and discharged in Victorian and Edwardian times.

Now there once was a well-known Glasgow physician who rapidly came to earn for himself high acclaim in his chosen field of medicine. Much of his early pioneering research work had been carried out on the Continent, before returning to his native Scotland. (There he had in fact begun his days in medicine, as House Physician to the great Sir Thomas McCall Anderson). On his return, he quickly acquired a colourful (and at times one suspects, apocryphal) reputation. Apparently, he would walk around the hospital with a walking stick or umbrella, not because of any personal ailment or due to leakages etc. in either ceilings or roofs. Rather was it because of an aversion on his part, to touching doorknobs, stair railings and the like. When once he ‘caught’ his “Resident”· licking the adhesive flap of an envelope, he insisted that the hapless perpetrator of the “offence” should wash his mouth out with a solution of potassium permanganate.

On clinic days, he observed that patients tended to edge their way nearer to the huge table (the other side to which “the great man” sat). Promptly, he instructed sister to tie a length of calico bandage, from the leg of the chair, to a fixed observation rail at one side, intended for students. And apparently he always had a bowl of hot water set out on the table itself (and thus between him and the patient) to which – prior to seeing each patient – he would add a few drops of a mixture of essential oils. The mixture of consequent scents and aromas remaining in the room at the end of each clinic became colloquially known among the local nurses as, “Glasgow’s Garden of Roses”.

Now move forward in time with me about seventy-five years to the 1990s and allow me to introduce another one time Glasgow doctor, who I knew and with whom I had the privilege to serve for several years. Steve (not his real name of course) also quickly became a “well kent” (well known) face around the wards of the Beatson Oncology Centre and Western infirmary and had swiftly earned for himself a well-deserved, high reputation in Oncology.

One day, a patient to whom I was at that moment speaking, noticed him bustling into the ward in his inimitable way. “I think he’s lovely” she told me: “Makes me feel good whenever I see him around he does”. I inquired a little further and the patient went on to tell me how one day when in the ward, she was having “a wee bubble” as she put it (Scots for “in tears”). “He just happened to be walking along the ward and past my bed, when he hesitated for a moment and then approached me, inquiring somewhat uncertainly, “Are you all right?” “I told him that I was just being silly but he remained there for a few moments in silence. Then as he left, he kind of gripped my toes through the bed covers (I was in bed at the time) giving them a wee shake and me a smile, before continuing on his way”. “Do you know” she added; “somehow that simple touch…just to my toes…meant everything to me that day”. Touch may not cure; but it sure does heal! Yes, I know I’ve written that before…but its well worth repeating.

  •  Newly qualified Junior House Doctor
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