Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Alchemists

What is it about a medical degree that qualifies its owner to write/create? Think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Miller and Somerset Maugham. I've just finished "Travels", non-fiction short essays by Michael Crichton, novelist and another MD. It's autobiographical, flipping between journeys in the inner world and the outer; between forays into the jungle of New Guinea and experiments with astral planes in California. It's a page-turner.

Lest I got carried away with the heady prestige of being a medical student in London, undergrads from other disciplines like chemistry and engineering--from most of the other curricula, in fact--hastened to point out that medics were the low people on the intellectual totem pole. For most of us this was true. For myself it was a miracle: nobody in our family had ever gone in for medicine. I was single-minded, but a one-trick pony. But there were a shining few who were renaissance men, for whom medicine was merely a sideline. Some finished their degree but never went on to practice.

At Christmas the medical students performed skits to amuse the patients ("ward shows"). By far the most fun for the patients was watching the inebriated students (who spent much of the week tormenting their patients with multiple blood tests and endless questions) stumble around making fools of themselves. One group, the Cambridge Footlights, had class: their skits had most of us weeping with uncontrollable laughter. A tall, quiet guy named Graham Chapman figured prominently in this group, which was odd, because most of the time he was pretty gloomy. The "Monty Python" show still carried recognizable snippets from the Cambridge Footlights team.

Another gifted student was Michael Church; raised in Rwanda by missionary parents, he thought of himself as African; he brought African music to West End theatres. His talents also included replicas of the cave paintings at Lascaux, in France, reproduced on large plaster-of-Paris boards.

For a while I practised anesthesiology in Upstate New York. My colleague for many years had been a virtuoso clarinet player from Juilliard who'd played in the Metropolitan Opera and Radio City Music hall. One day he decided to study neurology, and that was it. He earned his way through New York Medical College on scholarships but, finding that neurology didn't put bread on the table, he became an ER doc.

At least one upstate New Yorker owes her life to his diagnostic genius; I remember the night we collaborated in drilling a trephine hole (with a bit-and-brace) to release the expanding blood clot that was crushing her brain (see "What to do Till the Neurosurgeon Arrives by Helicopter"). At about that time Allan became fascinated by anesthesiology and at 53 started a residency, all over again, in Buffalo, graduating (of course) with flying colours. All this while commuting each weekend (five hours one way) and moonlighting in the Emergency Room. He never touched the clarinet again.

Michael Crichton's fiction is darn good; listening to a tape of "Airframe" on a long car trip I was so mesmerized I missed my turn-off ramp. Now there's a man with a busy brain. In idle curiosity I browsed his website, with its list of staggering accomplishments, any one of which would do the rest of us credit. But if contentment is true success, as I believe it is, he's still looking. Being gifted is hard to live with, like being pursued by demons.

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