I was surprised and proud this morning to open my copy of IScot Magazine this morning when it dropped on the doormat.
My short story Patient X is published in this month’s edition.
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I may be 65 but I'm a proud wee laddie the day.
For those who want to read the story, it has a medical theme, with a few twists. Read on.....
by N J Edmunds
Ronnie Thain started his car and paused, switching off again and cursing himself. By the time he’d gone back to recheck he’d locked the surgery, the clock in his car read 6.40 pm. Turning out of the tiny car park, a flash across the rearview mirror told him he’d left the light on in his room again. Another row from the practice manager tomorrow, he thought.
Sheila’s anger was still dinging his ears. Once a month! What’s wrong with that? Every year I have to collect enough education points to prove I’m up to date. She knows that. Yes, it’s December, and yes, Emily has parties and sleepovers, and yes, she’s had all day teaching Tillydrone’s teenagers. But it’s still only once a month.
As he pulled into the Atholl Hotel carpark, another thought struck home. Oh shit! I’ll have to tell her I need to top up Mrs Dinnie’s morphine on the way to work tomorrow. If she’s still alive, that is. Sheila’s going to have to take Ross to nursery again.
Taking his jacket off, he made his excuses for being last to arrive.
“Silly bugger! You shouldn’t have phoned her!” Graham Barrett said, lifting his pint as the others smiled and nodded in agreement. Ronnie knew fine well most of them would also have phoned home before the meeting.
“Ach, you’re aye late anyway, Ronnie. That’s why we wait. C’mon get a drink before the lecture starts.”
“What can I get you, gents?” Kenny, the barman, asked.
“Another pint for me, Mr Grieve, and the wee laddie’ll hae his usual.”
“How come you always get away early, Gullet?” Ronnie asked Graham as he nodded his thanks to Kenny Grieve and turned away with his cola.
“Better class of patient, Ronnie. I joined the right practice.”
They followed the chattering gaggle of doctors heading into the small function room, and Ronnie smiled, reflecting on how his close friend and medical school classmate had always landed butter side up.
“Right,” announced Malcolm, standing at the head of the shiny table as his seven colleagues found seats. “It’s the Christmas men-only event, and my turn to chair the proceedings. As tradition demands, I chose the subject for fun and frivolity while retaining the necessary educational elements to satisfy the stringent requirements of the postgraduate education allowance.”
“Shut up, you prick,” called Gullet, “get on with it, the drug rep’s put on a free bar.”
“Christ, he’s brought slides! You wanker, Malcolm! It’s Xmas. This is meant to be fun.” Alistair Sinclair, also a GP, was a stalwart of the group. Only a year or two older than Ronnie and Gullet, Ally had become a wise and reliable source of support for his friends and peers, even after his senior partner died leaving him to run their small practice.
“Yes, but they’re fun slides. MRI scans I found from way back, and—”
“Aw fuck off, Malcolm. That’s work!” Gullet grinned as he spoke, backed up by the laughing, gulping, jeering group.
“Now come on, gents, it’ll be good. I’m going to go round the table testing you on what each slide shows—”
“That’s a tutorial, Malcolm.”
“Ah, but the funniest answer wins this.” Malcolm held up a bottle of Glenlivet, and won the meeting’s attention. He switched on the projector and lit the screen Kenny had rolled down for him.
“As I was saying, the slides tonight are old scans done in 1987. They were all taken when they were testing the first MRI scanner in the world, here in Aberdeen. The subjects, including myself actually, were selected as they would be for any scientific trial.” Malcolm smiled at his audience, looking pleased with himself. “The treatment group included those who wanted the free lunch and the control group were — err — those who wanted the free lunch.” There were groans and grudging laughter.
“I remember that! I definitely went along for food. They scanned anybody in sight. Nurses and porters. Doctors, students. You were there, Ronnie.”
“Quiet, please, Dr Sinclair. Thank you.”
“I’d forgotten that,” whispered Ronnie to Ally.
Malcolm McRorie showed the slides he had selected for their curiosity. Blurry images clicked their way into view from the slide cassette, and guesses were offered.
“A panda’s head?”
It was a pharyngeal pouch containing partially digested food in the upper thorax of an elderly woman, Malcolm assured them.
“I still think it’s a panda,” said Alok Talwar, a psychiatrist.
The banter continued, and the highlight was a slide introduced by Malcolm as “One to make you think next time you rush when doing a scrotal examination.”
“Oh no, don’t bring that up again!” Ally groaned, but smiled as his friends laughed. On a teaching ward round when they were all still medical students, Alistair Sinclair had been picked to demonstrate his skill in the clinical examination of the male genitalia. The keen and willing volunteer patient had shown his consent by meeting Ally’s shaking hands with a huge tumescence. It had become folklore in the medical community.
As the room quietened, Alok commented, “It is good we have safer teaching methods now.”
No one could spot the abnormality Malcolm was bursting to reveal. He paced back and forth behind the projector, dismissing clumsy guesses and teasing his pupils. “Think what you have two of, but the poor subject doesn’t.”
“But we’re all men here tonight, and he’s definitely got two goolies. look at the size!”
“C’mon, Malcolm, what does the scan show?”
“OK.” Malcolm squeezed round the table to approach the screen and, with his pen, pointed out two gaps.
“Ah, I see it now. It’s obvious when you point it out,” said Ronnie.
“Congenital absence of the vas deferens, bilateral. He’s infertile.” The tube draining spermatozoa from each testis was missing.
“Christ! How did they fix that?” asked Gullet. “Call the plumber?”
When the laughter receded, Malcolm continued, “That’s just it. These scans have never been reported, and were only done to test the machine’s settings. They were filed away without being looked at, once the technicians had checked the exposure and contrast. That guy probably doesn’t know why he’s never had kids.”
As they filed out to the bar for a break, Tim Pinder said, “Thank God it’s men-only tonight. We’d have had endless debate about ethics and consent if the girls had been here.”
“You’re a typical surgeon, Tim. ‘Never mind the sensitivities, look at the size of my knife’, eh?”
Lively chat continued, and Malcolm had to chase them back to their seats for the second set of slides. More curios were displayed, one of them a tumour of the A-V node, a lump growing within the heart which Malcolm explained was likely to induce sudden cardiac arrest and death.
“That young man’s a ticking time bomb and he doesn’t know it. If he’s still alive, that is,” said Malcolm with a flourish as he clicked on to the next slide.
The meeting over, the business of food could begin. After his breaded chicken, Ronnie excused himself. Entering the toilets, he heard loud retching, and saw Ally Sinclair vomiting in a sink.
“I know who it is. With the A-V node lump.” He was red-eyed and shaking.
“But the scans are anonymised. Just a code in the corner.”
“You know I remember numbers. I can’t help it, I just memorise numbers when I see them. Not everything, but things like dates of birth or unit numbers.”
“Aye, you were always a great one for phone numbers, better than directory—”
“Listen! When we were on that trial back in ’87, I spent the waiting time memorising everyone’s code. And I know the unit number on that slide Malcolm showed us.” He wiped a string of sticky sick from his chin.
“Aye, and the poor guy’s probably dead by now.”
“That’s just it. He’s not. I know who it is. Malcolm’s fucking ‘ticking time bomb’ was in the meeting tonight.”
“In there? No. Who?” A lump grew in Ronnie’s throat as he understood. The door crashed open, and Gullet joined them.
“You two getting cosy in here? People will talk, you know!”
Ally marched out and headed straight for the car park.
Back in his seat, Ronnie heard little of the table talk as his friends and colleagues shared stories, concerns and gossip. He looked at them all. Who was it? He tried to tell himself it was one of them, rather than him.
Blue flashes passed the window. Then more. A siren screamed.
“That’ll be two kidneys for me!” smirked Tim, always on the lookout for transplant donors.
Kenny entered the room and cleared his throat. Ronnie thought he looked odd in his silly waiter’s apron. He was speaking, but no one at the table listened. His voice rose.
“I’m sorry, gents, I have to interrupt. The police have closed King’s Gate. You’ll not get your cars out of the car park. There’s been an accident just down the hill.”
Sheila held his hand as they exited the crematorium. They could see their freezing breath.
“Hi, Doc. Terrible business, eh?”
Ronnie took a moment to recognise Kenny from the Atholl.
“I first knew him back when he was a student, from my time when I used to work in Foresterhill.” There were tears in Kenny’s eyes. “He was a brilliant doctor to me and my family. When I saw him leaving that night, I never thought it would be the last…”
Ronnie spent a miserable six months. Work was hellish, and his nightmares continued. There had been no more monthly meetings, but he couldn’t have faced the other doctors if there had.
He wrestled with his guilt of hoping Ally’s heart had been the time-bomb. The official cause of the accident was the stolen car broadsiding him at the end of Fountainhall Road. But a tumour of the A-V node could have been overlooked at a post-mortem. If it was Ally, it meant it couldn’t be one of the others at the meeting. Or himself.
He looked at Sheila dozing on the couch. She’d have kittens if he told her he might drop dead at any minute. She stirred when the phone rang.
“What?—Oh—no! It’ll wake the kids!”
Wishing he had a cordless receiver, Ronnie went to the hall. “Hello?”
“Ronnie, it’s Graham.”
“Aye. Listen, the group fell apart after Ally’s RTA, and I’ve been trying to set up another meeting.”
“I’m not sure I could, Gullet, sorry.”
His heart raced, its thumping loud enough to scare birds. It was lasting longer this time. Tears clouded his eyes as fear closed in. His children shrieked their delight a fleeting relief. Chocolate smiles and rolling eggs. His chest pounded faster, harder, in his neck now, faster!…….STOP! He heard a blackbird chirrup. Then a gurgle. Silence. Nothing. Blackness.
Ronnie wished they hadn’t persuaded him to come. He looked around the table, trying to stifle his need to replay the cruel Russian roulette. Six of the nine doctors around the table attended at Christmas. Ronnie knew three had taken part in the trial, perhaps more. Alok? Gullet? Dave Hayton? He tried not to include himself but knew he was as likely to drop dead as any. But he had borne the burden of knowing. Shouldn’t he be spared?
The waitress handed drinks out.
“Where’s Kenny tonight?” asked Gullet, his smile showing approval of Kenny’s attractive stand-in. His face fell when she spoke.
“Oh! Poor Mr Grieve!”
The meeting hushed, and the girl blushed before stammering, “Kenny died at Easter. His kids were rolling their eggs. Just dropped dead. His heart.”
Patient X - a short story by N J Edmunds