Monday 26 August 2019

Sensitive mix of mystery and humour of a life in neurology

Memoir:  Just One More Question

Niall Tubridy

Penguin Ireland €17.00

Brain storm .... Niall Tubridy brings us into the unknowns
Brain storm .... Niall Tubridy brings us into the unknowns
Just One More Question

Hilary A White

A cursory glance at the non-fiction shelves so far this year would suggest that medical memoirs that lift the curtain on the practice are having a day in the sun. Aoife Abbey's Seven Signs of Life enthralled and enlightened, before titles such All In A Doctor's Day and The Knife's Edge seemed to indicate publishers were looking for direct testimony from those at the coalface of sickness and health.

It is perhaps part of the general rise in appetite for real-life stories that feature people at the mercy of diagnoses and cures (Sinead Gleeson's Constellations, for example, has a big medical seam running through it). Books often tell of journeys and struggles, after all, both words that are fundamental to serious illness.

The brain, however, feels like a murkier realm altogether, a place where reality can be distorted and behaviours caused to warp. Or, as Niall Tubridy refers to it in this collection, "the great unknown".

In these "stories from a life in neurology", the renowned St Vincent's Hospital neurologist (and brother of Ryan), brings us part of the way into the "known-unknowns", if you will, those cases that he encountered over the years that illustrate just how nebulous an area brain diagnosis can be. And what's more, the bizarre array of symptoms that can present themselves.

Bemusement abounds in this compilation of case studies during the doctor's time in London and Dublin. There is the young woman whose left hand speaks to her in the manner of a guardian angel. Then there is the man who had hiccups for 30 years, a cruel condition if ever there was one. Tubridy, who has, of course, changed the names in all cases, is unable to disguise his sense of fun in the telling of some ordeals, such as the young lover who was subject to chronic headaches every time he climaxed ("He collapsed on top of his unsuspecting and somewhat distracted partner").

The tone can be sober too, however, such as during those situations relating to multiple sclerosis, that horrific ailment so prevalent in this country and the author's specialist subject. There is also the slightly detached frustration of a doctor as he recalls a young rugby player who defied recommendations to quit in case he suffered another meninges tear.

Unsurprisingly for someone who spent considerable years studying (this and many reflections on his childhood as the son of a doctor are given in intermittent chapters that lightly touch on the broader medical subject matter), Tubridy is interested in people. He paints clear if one-dimensional portraits of the sufferers, before detailing their treatment.

Dealing with worried, stubborn, confused or blase patients is a large part of the doctor's skillset, it seems, especially when there are underlying or adjacent issues to be taken into account. Tubridy is bluntly realistic about what he is dealing with day-to-day, and how after 25 years, "the false confidence of youth" has been replaced by a realisation of how much he and his field still don't know. Every day, he learns something new about brain dysfunction, he swears, and after every unhappy diagnosis there is another patient in the waiting room who will be repaired.

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