Dr Joe Baker
We are told medical students flourish with a good dose of the humanities but as with all interventions the verification is in the dessert. Even the most gorgeous sounding of approaches should have its outcomes considered.
In recent years medical students have had lists of recommended readings thrust upon them. I wanted to know how these students had turned out as doctors and how literature might have influenced their practices.
My first study subject was Dr Laurence Gielgud who, as a second year student, was encouraged to read the works of Shakespeare. Gielgud set up the aptly named Globe Medical Centre in a leafy Dunedin suburb in the 1990s. We agreed to meet there one Tuesday. Unfortunately when I arrived he had just been called away.
“It’s a shame he can’t make it, “said Bianca Minola, his practice manager and long term romantic partner, “But absence makes the heart grow stronger. We three could meet again some other time if you wish.”
“In thunder, lightning or in rain, “ I added. Bianca stared at me oddly.
I was happy to quiz Bianca without Gielgud. We sat and drank tea in the medical centre’s garden. I asked Bianca how she thought Gielgud’s exposure to Shakespeare had moulded him as a doctor.
“Reading Shakespeare has affected everything Laurence does.” Bianca gave a knowing smile. “Literally everything. When I think about how Laurence has set up this practice and the goings on here, I can’t help but think of Shakespeare’s tragedies and of course his comedies: the exceptional torment and anguish, the misfortunes, the youthful lust, the fools, the heroes, the drunkards, the corrupting power—and that’s just the staff! Tortured, haunted, and disturbed characters giving long soliloquies—that’s how I would describe the senior partners. And of course we have the patients. How can we forget them, what with their entrances and exits? It’s almost as though our practice is a stage representing the world with the patients merely players.”
Tea with Bianca Minola at the Globe Medical Centre. Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners.
“Laurence and I met during his final year at medical school; he was infatuated by my name. One night after finishing his house jobs, I think it was the twelfth night, he said to me, ‘Well then, the world’s mine oyster, ‘and we decided there and then to set off for England. Laurence took up a role as a GP and therapist to the Royal family. At that time, the female spouses of that great dynasty had all entered into a deep melancholia but Laurence quickly cured them with his chirpy down-to-earth Kiwism. ”
“These, now very merry, wives of Windsor loved him and wrote glowing references. Laurence could have gone on to to do anything in England. He often said, ‘I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it,’ but at the same time he wanted to return to his native Otago to set up a general practice.”
“He wanted premises designed along the lines of an Elizabethan theatre but he realised that was impractical. But he did want a practice with a garden; many of Shakespeare’s works involve gardens and Laurence thought gardens a key to health. ‘Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners,’ he would often say.”
“And so here we are. Although not an Elizabethan theatre I do hear Shakespearean-like quotes coming from his rooms all the time. He’ll be removing a tricky mole from a patient and I’ll hear him say, ‘Is this a scalpel which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?’ And then a few minutes later, ‘ Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’ Then he’ll be discussing lifestyle choices with a patient and say, ‘Tubby or not tubby? That is the question you need to address.’ ”
“Sometimes we think he is under Shakespeare’s influence but we can be wrong. Just the other day he came in from the staff car park ranting, ‘ My Alfa Romeo. My Alfa Romeo! Where the f*** is my Alfa Romeo?’ Cordelia from reception and I told him that had been quite a bit of a misquote. ‘ No, really someone has stolen my f***ing Alfa Romeo’ he said. Cordelia quipped , ‘You could use the insurance money to buy a Portia.’ Laurence remained surprisingly sullen.”
Bianca offered me another cup of tea and biscuit “Tempt not a desperate man,” I said.
I asked Bianca if a patient had ever complained about Gielgud.
“No. No one has ever complained. Some patients think him eccentric but they love him. Some travel far and wide to see him. And he seems to be the popular choice with tourists. Last month we had two gentlemen from Northern Italy visit him and then a commercial trader from Venice. As I say patients just love him. Actually, wait a minute, there was a complaint—just the one—many years ago now. There was this patient who was infatuated with Molière who took exception to Laurence quoting Shakepeare. The patient, I think he was French, wrote to the Health and Disability Commissioner. The Commissioner dismissed the complaint out of hand saying it really had been much ado about nothing.”
I asked Bianca about the other doctors in the practice. “Measure for measure we have had as good a bunch of doctors as anyone could hope to get. However there is a problem; Laurence prefers to work with doctors called Richard or Henry. We’re onto our third Richard, and goodness me , we must be onto our sixth Henry. The doctors do find him difficult.”
It was clear Gielgud’s exposure to the humanities had affected his professional life and I wanted to ask Bianca more. But time and tide wait for no man and I had to leave for my next interview. I bid Bianca adieu and hastened across our fair city to meet my next study subject, a doctor who had been fed a voluminous diet of Harold Pinter at medical school. She had gone on to set up a practice where, it was rumoured, uncomfortable power struggles between members of staff had developed and capricious dialogue, punctuated with ominous and uncomfortable pauses, was the order of the day. I couldn’t wait
Disclaimer: not all of the above is necessarily true.
Dr Joe Baker: Joe Baker is a GP in Dunedin, New Zealand.