independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Rude Health: TV lifestyle experts a right turn-off

TV programmes featuring so-called 'experts' dishing out advice to the overweight are far from helpful, says Maurice Gueret

All doctors like to keep in touch with what patients are saying, doing or watching, but I draw the line at this rash of 'lifestyle programming' on television. There is little style, and not much life or substance to these modern game shows, where skeletal 'experts' ask fat folk to appear in their undergarments for weekly weigh-ins, a spot of moralistic tut-tutting and generic health advice straight off the side of a cornflake packet. I'd much rather if the cameras were put away, the experts were returned to their clinics to care for the sick, and the contestants were all given a rescue dog, whose only demand is an hour or two of walkies each day.

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Anyhow, to keep me away from all this transformation nonsense, for 2014, I have set myself the task of reading the fiction of Charles Dickens. One year is, perhaps, optimistic, as he spent about 30 years writing them. But the subplot to my exercise is a desire to glean from his writings what exactly Dickens thought about doctors. Like so many lazy lumps of mid-1960s vintage, I am familiar with most of the works through cinema or television adaptation, but I cannot ever recall starting and finishing one of his many books. My early research has been done, and I am led to believe there are 27 members of the medical profession in 14 of his major works. He has medical students, general practitioners, ships' surgeons, physicians and obstetricians. He also had two doctors who seldom, if ever, practised. Writing on Dickens in the British Medical Journal two decades ago, a South African physician found that, despite his respect and admiration for most doctors, the works of Dickens contain veiled criticism, subtle sarcasm and observations of avarice, hypocrisy, talking too much and manipulation of society for the profession's own ends. I have Great Expectations for this project. If any Dickensian doctors stand out in your memory, please let me know, and why, by emailing mgueret@imd.ie or by post at PO Box 59049, Dublin 6W.

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Granny, on Dad's side of the family, was a Fitzharris of Ringsend. They had a well-known pub with a snug and, reputedly, the best Guinness in Dublin. Number 4 was very popular with dockers and was just over the bridge in Ringsend in what is now an off-licence. With so many girls in the family, the Fitzharris name died out in Dublin, though some of the boys did venture to America. I was named after Uncle Maurice, a record of whom I found recently on a wonderful Facebook page called Dublin Dockers. He was known in the locality as 'The Hump' Fitzharris, for he was born with a hunched back, or acquired it when dropped as a baby. (There are two medical opinions on his story). Maurice was the baby of the family and, all his life, was very attached to his mother. In fact, he died just months after she did. 'The Hump' was a cruel sobriquet, you might think, but Dockland could be an unforgiving place, and not a place for the sensitive soul. The Dublin Dockers page on Facebook is a wonderful tribute to the memories of ordinary people, some of whom had extraordinary nicknames. I'll spare blushes and excise the surnames, but would the following boys please stand up for medical inspection: Big Nose, Lousy Head, Poison Prick, Blue Nose, Snotty Nose, Count the Skulls, Rubber Legs, Steel Chest, The Bleeder, Loppy Lugs, Chinny, Thumbs, Goldfinger, Kidney, Bandy, Foot and a Half, Ankles, Baldy, Buckets of Blood, Fangs, Glass Back, Rubbish Muzzle and Dig in the Goo. I'd say Uncle Maurice never felt alone in Ringsend.

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A medical colleague down the country has been in touch to share a lovely, true story from his junior doctoring days in Dublin. An unfortunate native of Co Kerry collapsed with tummy pains after attending the All-Ireland Final. He was admitted to Dr Steevens Hospital, where my correspondent was three months into his surgical internship. On a Monday morning, the junior doctor was chaining his bike to the hospital railings when he was approached by the redoubtable head porter, who would always make sure nobody scratched the Jaguar belonging to an eminent consultant. The head porter, who distributed the patients' mail, handed the junior doctor a letter, saying: "That's one of yours." The letter was addressed as follows (I have changed the name): Mr Timothy O'Leary, Obstruction of the Bowels, Dr Steevens Hospital, Dublin.

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My recent piece on making EpiPens more generally available has met with approval. These are the little needle devices that can abort life-endangering allergic reactions to foods, stings and other threats. One gentleman wrote to say that his local GAA club had to fork out €300 recently to have their defibrillator serviced. I didn't ask, but I assume that, like most of the thousands of debfibrillator machines around the country, this expensive equipment has never seen any use. A wonderful independent councillor from Ennis, Paul O'Shea, has also been in touch. He had a motion before the town council calling for legislation to enable bars and restaurants to include EpiPens in their first-aid boxes, and asked for other county councils to support this request. Not only that, but he came to Dublin to stand outside the Dail to highlight the issue. He tells me that, three years ago, the health committee in Leinster House was to consider this matter, but nothing ever happened. In November last, President Obama signed into law an Act that encourages schools to stock epinephrine for use in allergic emergencies. His daughter, Malia, has a peanut allergy. Any chance of our own politicians acting to prevent the sort of needless tragedy we saw on a Dublin street before Christmas?

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