In theory, the very best doctors are those who have actually experienced the very diseases that patients present to them for appraisal. Up to a few weeks ago, the winter vomiting bug (known in discerning laboratory circles as the Norovirus) was not on my list of personal debilitations.
But one fateful Wednesday night changed all that, and I am happy today to bring you a personal perception from the front line (and rear too) against this much talked-about illness. It didn't come in from the cold. A paediatric 'tummy bug' had visited the family the previous weekend and just as the adults began to congratulate themselves on their impeccable hygiene and iron-like resistance, disaster struck your scribe. The first serious symptom was a rare unwillingness to have that second glass of claret with dinner. This was soon followed by that well-known second-stage warning sign - taking to the bed before the Nine O'Clock News is over, stainless-steel bowl and a towel past its prime in tow. Two hours of gentle seasick-like nausea waves were followed by stormy heaving. By midnight, all ports were ajar as the disease had become an open-ended affair. Just as the stomach valves were relaxing, typhoon-like wet winds struck mercilessly without warning, all through a long night.
Thursday was spent in convalescence. I was shattered and spent the first full day in bed in many decades. No proprietary medicines were called for. Barrier nursing techniques ensured that nobody came within an ass's roar of the patient's room. Furtive trips to the kitchen ensured a copious supply of cool drinking water between naps. Twenty-four hours after the disaster struck, the patient treated himself to two sips of tea. It stayed down. A few hours later, he managed a full cup, accompanied by a medicinal chocolate-chip muffin, a very small one. By Friday morning, recovery had truly set in. The washing machine went into overdrive and the family mutt was marched all the way to Poolbeg lighthouse and back to make up for his loss of a walk on Thursday. What I found most extraordinary about my winter-vomiting-bug experience was the burst of energy that I felt when it was over. It set me thinking that there might be something in the theories of colonic irrigation after all. Would I go through it again? Not on your life. Two hundred million people go to bed with the winter vomiting bug each year. Two hundred thousand don't live to tell the tale. I'm a survivor.
A reader has been in touch asking what I think of the current rash of free magazines on healthy living and lifestyles. He is rather surprised by the eagerness with which some pharmacies and health-food stores stock them. I tend not to pick these things up at all in case they annoy me, but he assures me their articles still feature older people who have strengthened their gums, improved their fitness levels, loosened their joints, regrown their hair, maintained elastic skin, improved their nails, boosted their immune systems and returned to normal energy metabolism (whatever that is). My informant feels for a vulnerable public who might fall for such patter. I feel for the men and women of science who could stoop so low as to provide such research-free, high-margin panaceas for their patients.
We have been discussing various cures for the whooping cough in recent weeks, and one element which crops up time and again is the great love that Irish doctors had for the 'fresh air'. A reader tells me that she was walking from school one day, when she noticed what looked like a choking baby in a pram outside a house. She ran in and knocked on the door. The mother thanked her profusely, but told her that the baby was fine. It had whooping cough and the doctor had told her to keep baby outside in fresh air. Later, when she had babies of her own, the obstetrician gave her firm advice about keeping them outside in their prams all the time, except in fog! It was Dr Kieran O'Driscoll (1920-2007), a very busy Dublin obstetrician. He had very firm ideas about the delivery of babies, and how mothers might manage them. Son of an apothecary in Kildare, Dr O'Driscoll trained in maternity at Liverpool and London. He plied his trade at the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street, and delivered many babies privately in nursing homes around Dublin city. In March 1963, the same year he became Master at Holles Street, he conducted an infamous delivery in the Cascia Nursing Home on Dublin's Pembroke Road. Rumour has it that the baby went on to enjoy Rude Health (or writing about it anyhow). My mother remembers his baby-rearing advice well. Keep him outside in his pram as much as possible. Let him cry. Don't pick him up during the night. If he is very noisy, let him sleep downstairs in the cloakroom so that nobody else is disturbed. Well the sensible Mrs Gueret took Dr O'Driscoll at his word. Half a century later, that loud baby is still being ignored.
My recent stories of hospital theft have spurred one reader, formerly an important member of clinical staff, to get in touch. Many years ago, she was working at a hospital in Cheshire, when two very unusual thefts took place. First of all, a box of shrouds went missing. This was followed by the disappearance of a set of very sharp post-mortem knives. The shrouds were never seen again, but the recently sharpened knives did reappear - on a paediatric ward. Odd, to say the least.
Maurice Gueret is author of 'The Doctor's Case' and 'What The Doctor Saw'