I phoned the ward and asked my houseman to arrange for his admission. There would be things to do; a bone marrow with samples sent for chromosomes, a chest X-ray, and swabs to check for infection. The houseman knew what to do. We follow a protocol these days; we don’t have to think.
I let my mind slip back to how it used to be when I first got into this game. The average survival time for children with leukaemia was ten weeks and for adults it was six weeks. We had no really effective drugs, blood transfusion services were rudimentary and the only antibiotics that we had were either ineffective against the germs that infect leukaemia patients or so toxic that you risked killing the patient if you used them. The first patient I treated had died from a brain haemorrhage after five days and the second had got septicaemia and died after two weeks.
Things were better now. We could all but guarantee Ronnie a remission of sorts if he decided to go for it, though how long it would last for might deter him from even trying for one. Of course, some patients could be cured with a bone marrow transplant, but at his age…
I snapped out of it. This was a long clinic and I had to get on.
It had been quite a surprise to see June with Ronnie. She had recognised me, of course – I wasn’t the one who had a different name – but she made no comment. Perhaps she thought that I would not have recognised her, it had been more than twenty years since we had last had contact. We had met first at a party when I was a medical student and she was training to be a teacher. I’ve no idea whose party it was. We were both gatecrashers.
Students today would hardly have recognised it. For one thing we had short hair and no gel. It was before drugs became generally available; no pot, no ‘E’, not even speed. We took caffeine tablets to stay awake before exams. There was a lot of booze, but it was pretty foul stuff. I seem to remember drinking pints of British sherry; sweet, sickly and red.
They were playing “If I fell in love with you” by the Beatles; it was that era. She wore a black dress made of some sort macramé network that was more holes than substance. Skirts were very short that year. It’s hard to remember what a shock that was. Several accidents were caused by motorists taking a surprised second look at an abbreviated dress walking by. Tights had replaced stockings and this technical advance had enabled designers to be even more daring. Agony aunts debated whether knickers should be worn above or beneath the tights.
“Who is your favourite poet?” she asked.
“Bob Dylan.” I replied.
She scoffed at the idea that a singer could be a poet. She was studying Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth, about whom I knew next to nothing. I tried Wilfred Owen, which was met a bit more sympathetically and then Gerard Manley Hopkins, which impressed her. I think I passed out shortly after that and it was some weeks before I saw her again.
We had an on and off romance. I liked her a lot. We laughed at similar things. She introduced me to Rhythm and Blues and French film. I amused her with stories from the accident department and operating theatre. You have to understand that in those days young people didn’t just move in together. The pill was available but few were taking it. Having a girlfriend was more about frustration than sex.
June had been a Catholic, but had lapsed before coming up to University. You never lose the memory of that first communion, though. We didn’t agree about religion and I never met her parents. She wasn’t the only girl I was seeing either.
On one occasion we broke up after an argument. I had been telling her about an incident in the accident and emergency department. In those days they used to employ medical students to stitch up wounds. We weren’t paid, but we got our board and lodging. I was penniless so that free food was incentive enough and besides it was hands-on experience that was a clear improvement on poorly attended lectures from reluctant teachers.
O’Brien was an Irish drunk well known to the Casualty Officers. This time he had been brought to the hospital with a scalp injury. The story was that he had heaved a half house-brick through the window of an Indian restaurant provoking three waiters to come out and beat him about the head with hockey sticks. He was rude, violent and incoherent and the Casualty Officer, a guy called Jeremy Stevens, didn’t fancy him at all. After a peremptory examination he detailed me to stitch up his head wound.
It was a bloody mess. I poked about a bit, but O’Brien was so uncooperative that eventually I just squirted some local in and started stitching up his scalp. It was a difficult wound, the tear going in three different directions. As I struggled to get the edges straight I pulled out a square inch of skull, exposing the mushroom coloured brain beneath. “What shall I do with this?” I asked Dr Stevens (who had been qualified for nearly two years).
“Just stick it back in and keep on stitching.”
And so I did. By the time I had finished, Corky had stopped his cussing and struggling and was sleeping peacefully.
Relieved that he had finally succumbed to the booze, I started to examine him properly. I asked Jeremy Stevens “Should he have different sized pupils?”