Southerly by David Haywood

At the Doctor

I am writing this from a doctor's waiting room, a place that I particularly loathe. Not only because (by definition) you always have to wait, but also because -- while waiting -- you are sure to catch an even worse disease than the one you already have.

My school once showed us an American health film from the 1950s. It was shot in black and white, and entitled 'Joe Spreads Hepatitis'. I've always suspected that the script was written by Howard Hughes. It made a big impression on me. The voice-over was particularly memorable: "Joe has hepatitis. He goes to the lavatory. On the way out he touches the door-handle. Now the door-handle has hepatitis. Now Pete comes into the lavatory. He touches the door-handle. Now Pete has hepatitis."

Joe, Pete, and the door-handle all pulsed with a sort of nuclear-radiation glow when they were infected. As a consequence of Joe and his hepatitis I have a deep-seated suspicion of all toilet door-handles. Although recent research suggests that I should have similar misgivings about light-switches, tap-handles, telephones, pens, and the remote control for the telly.

The trouble with a doctor's waiting room is that everything in it has been pawed by sick people with infectious diseases. This means that there is no object in the room that you can safely touch. This is especially true of the magazines, which will have become encrusted with multiple layers of deadly viruses and bacteria. These same magazines -- in an ironic twist -- are the only thing available to prevent you from going insane with boredom during the interminable hours of waiting.

Fortunately, on this particular visit, the receptionist has given me an exciting-looking form to read. Under the heading 'Help Us Help You Even Better' it contains the following slightly confusing message: "We want you to help us to help you even better so that we can give you the best possible service. If you have any suggestions to improve our facilities then please let us know!"

Here are my helpful suggestions for improving their waiting room:

  1. Make other patients wait outside in the fresh air where they are less likely to spread diseases to me.

I wrote that 20 minutes ago. In the meantime I have lost my fear of infectious disease, and have begun to suspect that I will die of old age before my appointment becomes due. I am the first patient of the day. How is it even possible to be running this late without seeing a single patient? Unless -- it suddenly occurs to me -- my doctor is still treating people who have been waiting since yesterday.

I once witnessed a case of what I can only describe as 'waiting room rage' from a businessman in an expensive-looking suit. His doctor's appointment had been delayed for three-quarters of an hour. The businessman stood up and gave an impassioned speech to the other people in the waiting room, ending with the words: "My business would go bankrupt if it treated its customers like this". Then he walked out -- slamming the door for maximum dramatic effect. I now regret that I did not stand up and lead the room in a round of applause.

That was at my previous doctor. She was a fundamentalist Christian who -- from the word go -- had me sized up as a sexual degenerate. Frankly, in the words of Australia's most famous philosopher, I should be so lucky.

Regardless of the symptoms, she always diagnosed me with venereal disease. A few years back I had mysterious stomach pains. I hit upon a particularly cunning diagnostic approach which involved drawing a circle in indelible pen where it hurt, and writing the time and date in the middle of the circle.

After a week or so, I had a line of time-date circles that went up one side of my abdomen, crossed my body just above the navel, and then down the other side. I went to the medical library, and had a look at a cross-sectional drawing of a person. Bingo! The large intestine. Some sort of affliction of the colon, I thought.

Not so my old doctor. She had me tested for syphilis, gonorrhoea, and AIDS. "I know what you university students get up to," she said with a disapproving sniff. "Worse than the beasts in the field." She gave my circles short shrift. "And clean all that scribble off your stomach," she said. "It looks ridiculous."

It turned out to be vitamin B12 deficiency. The next year I had the same symptoms again. "Vitamin B12?" I suggested. "Hmmm," she said sceptically. "Do you have a burning sensation when you urinate? Any boils or warts where you shouldn't have them? I think we'll check you for venereal diseases just to be sure." She dismissed my protests with a wave of her hand. "No need to feel embarrassed, David. There's nothing to be ashamed about. Half the students in Canterbury have the clap as well. The campus is riddled with it."

In the end she prescribed a diet of raw vegetables to boost my B12 intake. As a consequence I spent months stuffing myself with salads. Unfortunately, as I was amused to discover some time later, vegetables are a food group which contains absolutely no vitamin B12 whatsoever.

From an comedy point of view my old doctor was brilliant, and if she hadn't left to join a religious commune in Texas I would still be one of her patients. I can only hope that my new doctor will be just as entertaining. After waiting for nearly an hour I should bloody well think so.