Friday 20 April 2018

Two-stone weight - tackling the issue of heavy schoolbags

There's a heavy-lifting job for our health minister in schools, says Maurice Gueret, who also has lightning-strike advice

Photo posed. Photo: Thinkstock.
Photo posed. Photo: Thinkstock.
Dr Maurice Gueret

The loaded topic of schoolbag weight isn't going away. It resonates with parents, especially those who are keenly aware of the chronic nature of a young bad back. There aren't votes or organised lobbies on the issue, so it's ignored by politicians.

It's not unusual for the school bags of 12-year-olds to weigh two stone (12.7kg). German guidelines laid out in the 1970s recommend that school bags weigh less than 10pc of the weight of the child. But a bag weighing two stone can represent 30pc of bodyweight in early adolescence. There's an extra stability danger in carrying monstrous weights on bicycles, buses and walks to school. One costly remedy that is gaining in popularity is that families buy two sets of identical schoolbooks for their kids - one for homework and one for schoolwork. Other families cast aside backpacks for the sort of wheelie suitcases that you'd see in airports. The migration to e-books seems to have drowned in a rough sea of fiddly screens and forgotten passwords. The Department of Education has been studiously ignoring responsibility for years. Perhaps a young and upcoming health minister with a bit of backbone might tackle it once and for all?

* Dr Brendan Kelly of Tallaght Hospital is an expert in many things, including the fiction of clinical love. Ten years ago, he published a careful analysis of 20 works of romantic medical fiction. His research carried across the world from the airwaves of the BBC to the newspapers of America. Well, the professor of psychiatry at Trinity has replicated the study 10 years on, and, recently, he revealed emerging trends in the Lancet. All 20 novels studied had heterosexual themes only. The most common pairing was doctor-doctor, but female doctors were more to the fore as central protagonists this time around. The ladies were most often surgeons, physicians or paediatricians and tended to fall for male doctors, though one male nurse and a paramedic also got a look-in. The biggest change noticed by Professor Kelly is that the proportion of romances in hospital settings has increased from 15pc to 65pc. Family doctor and outpatient romance is dwindling. The big themes of medical romance have changed little. Professor Kelly notes that heroic medicine and love still triumph over fatal illness, logical science and common sense. In his own words - "wounds heal, hearts melt, babies abound, and psychiatrists are conspicuous only by their absence". Too busy reading!

* When lady doctors aren't busy falling into fictional love, they can be pretty good at curing you, too. A new American study of more than one-and-a-half million older patients suggests that you are more likely to survive hospital if a lady doctor is in charge of your care, and less likely to need readmission, too. The study focused on care of medical patients, rather than those on surgical wards. The sort of illnesses recorded where lady doctors outperformed the men were lung ailments, heart failure and infections. The differences were statistically significant, though modest. The fact that female doctors were looking after slightly fewer patients than male colleagues may be the key.

* As editor of the Irish Medical Directory, I get queries from home and abroad about doctors from the near and distant past. Just recently, a retired doctor in England wrote to ask about the identity of an Irish surgeon who visited Guys Hospital in or around 1949. It turned out to be the late Westmeath man Bob O'Connell - legendary operator, dotty bow-tie wearer, and medic to the Irish rugby team. He passed on in the mid-1980s. Mr O'Connell was described by one colleague as "the most colourful character in Irish surgery from 1940 until his death". His father was one-time secretary to the INTO teachers' union, and the ability to negotiate tough deals with politicians was passed to his son. O'Connell was President of the Irish Medical Association in the 1950s. In his book on Irish surgeons of the last century, Professor Barry O'Donnell described Bob O'Connell as the epitome of the 'courageous surgeon' who would take on the really bad-risk patients of others. He operated on chests across numerous Irish hospitals and conducted pioneering operations on rare heart defects, including a world first, when he repaired the mitral heart valve on a lady who was in labour.

* The best way to keep your medical skills up to date is to read voraciously, so I have just finished a module on surviving a bolt of lightning. Better still is to learn the art of avoiding nearby lightning strikes in the first place. I have a few tips to pass on. You can tell how far lightning is from you by counting the seconds between the flash and the roll of thunder that follows. Five seconds means the lightning is within a mile; ten seconds, two miles; and so on. Anything less than 30 seconds means a chance of lightning striking. The shelter of home is usually best, with large appliances turned off and unplugged. Phones are best put down. If it's safe to pull the car in, then you should do so, close windows and doors, and avoid touching absolutely everything. For those unavoidably outdoors, high ground and open fields are less safe. Large trees and pylons are best avoided. "Avoid the ash for it courts a flash" is an old adage

that you could apply to oak and pine trees, too. Groups should spread out. Switch off phones. If you can't find good shelter, then hunker down and make yourself as small as you can. And don't make the most fatal mistake of all - thinking the storm is over before it really is.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the 'Irish Medical Directory'

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