A reader who worked in the old Ardkeen hospital in Waterford city told me a lovely story that dates back to a time when nuns patrolled its wards. It was the 1960s and my correspondent was toiling as a medical secretary.
An old man was admitted to the wards. He had been living alone in an isolated part of Co Waterford and a nun popped by to check him out. In a tone of voice that only nuns possessed in those days she enquired, "Have you a pyjamas?" to which he replied, "No Sister, I've got a pneumonia!" My kind informant also recalls a famous event in the 1950s when hospital bigwigs decided to have an outdoor ceremony and meal for local dignitaries, including the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore. All hospital porters were appointed as waiters for the day. Drink was flowing freely in those carefree pre-Road Safety Authority days. One 'waiter' was well oiled. He had the simple job of distributing sausages from a big tray. He sloped up to the Bishop, a man of God, who was treated like God in those days and asked, "Would you like a sausage, my Lord?" "No thank you my good man", replied the Bishop. But the porter was having none of it. Feeling rather audacious with drink, he pushed the tray right under the Bishop's nose and slurred, "Yerra Jaysus Bishop, have an effin' sausage". The medical secretary never heard what the ecclesiastical reply was. Sounds like Father Ted.
Men know a lot more about prostate cancer today than we used to. We are aware that it's not a straightforward disease to screen for. We also know now that the much-used PSA blood test is not all it was cracked up to be in the more needle-happy days of recent decades. Most men with a raised PSA level do not have prostate cancer. And some men with prostate cancer have a normal PSA. It can be one of those tests that raises more questions than it answers. A long chat with the GP, preferably by appointment, is the way forward for all men with waterworks symptoms. Urology services are very thin on the ground in this country and the powers-that-be can be thankful that men have not demanded the same one-day service for prostate symptoms that women have secured for breast problems. I don't like to leave any piece on cancer hanging without mentioning that the Irish Cancer Society (tel: (1800) 200-700) has an excellent 28-page leaflet for patients that explains both sides of the prostate equation very well. It won't get you seen any quicker, but it will arm you with facts.
Some years ago I knew a man who succumbed to an aggressive prostate cancer. When finally diagnosed, he told me that he should have presented much earlier. One of his dogs was constantly nuzzling into his groin area and in his own words "was trying to tell me something". I think we had a laugh together and christened his Jack Russell terrier as Doctor Dog. But there is something in what he was saying. Italian research in the Journal of Urology reveals that two female German shepherd dogs could be trained to detect prostate cancer with over 90pc accuracy, simply by sniffing for gassy compounds peculiar to prostate cancer in urine samples. The Duchess of Cornwall, who is to visit these shores with her husband Prince Charles this month, is patron of a charity called Medical Detection Dogs. It sponsors research trials on the canine diagnosis of both breast and prostate cancer. Nothing to be sniffy about.
Your old cures for whooping cough continue to stutter into me. A clove of garlic inserted into the sock of an afflicted child is a cheap one that doesn't involve travelling somewhere remote in the middle of the night for a witch's brew. Another that was reported to me from both Meath and south Leitrim was the cure of the 'ferret's leavings'. The family ferret (doesn't everyone have one?) is given a tasty saucer of milk. When it has feasted on half the contents the 'leavings' are bottled and drunk by the patient. A Rathgar reader tells me that he was told as a child that it never failed to work and a Meath reader called Mary told me that it took some courage on the part of parents. Mary also tells me that local honey gives immunity to hay fever over the summer months, but it must be taken from mid-March onwards. Her daughter was a sceptical scientist who was cured and now spreads its gospel. She tells me that it's essential that the "bees work and live locally". No blow-ins in other words! And I have an update on the Bishop's skull. This venerable old faith cure for whooping cough is still available in Athboy, Co Meath and Maghera near Virginia, Co Cavan, where it originated. I'm still trying to track down the name of the Bishop. We have ruled out Bishop Brennan from Father Ted.
I love to walk the lonely Massy Woods under the Dublin mountains in summer. It has one of the finest collections of rare trees in Ireland as any leg-cocking dog will testify. The full history of the demise of the Massy family home and its Dublin estate is sad, but worth reading. Living beyond one's means, banks closing in, financial woe, family squabbles and alcoholism. A resonant story today, though this was almost a century ago. I found a hawthorn tree up there recently and it put me in mind of an old cure for warts that a reader sent to me. The slimy part of a snail is rubbed on the wart and the creature is rewarded by being impaled on the spike of a hawthorn bush. The theory goes that the wart dies when the snail does. That's the sort of cruel cure that would have me running for the chemist.
Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the 'Irish Medical Directory'
Sunday Indo Life Magazine