Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The horror! The horror!

When my smaller half and I moved house way back in 2005, we grossly miscalculated how long it would take to pack up every single damn thing we owned into boxes. We also miscalculated how many boxes it would take. As a result, we stayed up for close to 48 hours, packing non-stop, with the removalists chasing us from room to room for the last 6 of those hours snatching boxes from our hands as we sealed them. We had run out of boxes at about 2 a.m. and had had to bust into my smaller half's old place of employment, using her still-valid pass, to "borrow" a heap of carboard boxes they had used several months before when relocating their office became necessary because one of the floors of their building was gutted by fire. Later that night we sat at a friend's house just about falling face-first into our take-away Indian food because we were so exhausted. "Never again", we swore.

When my smaller half and I moved house in 2007, the above scenario repeated itself, minus the midnight raid on the previous employer, the office fire, the Indian food, and the smaller half, who had gone on ahead to seize a forward position, and whose absence is probably a fair explanation for the mayhem that ensued. Instead, it was me packing single-handedly, I ran out of tape at 4 a.m., and I was nearly falling face-first into a delicious French meal with my siblings the next evening.

The reason I am writing about this is that a friend of ours is staying with us and as I type she is packing her bags to leave tomorrow. She has about 20 cans of tuna and 7 million packets of tim tams (a story for another time) and is busy wrapping everything in bubble wrap and packing tape so the drug-smuggling larcenous oafs that work as Qantas baggage handlers can't create havoc even if they try. And I am getting chills down my spine listening to the packing tape ripping off the roll like the fart of an angry god.

I appear to have post-traumatic stress disorder from moving house. The sound is making me remember the smell of that packing tape. It smelled like the taste of dry pasta when you chew it (a despicable habit of mine that will one day thrill my dentist). And the smell is making me remember the lights of the house which had been burning all night until any semblance of a circadian rhythm had been likewise burned out of my head. And the lights make me remember the cobwebs and dust in the store-room making my fingers feel sticky and dry and slippery but there's no time to wash them, and the feeling in my legs after I walked up those damn steps for the hundredth time that night and I just knew there were probably another hundred to go.

I just got the most awful sinking feeling that I am going to have to live in this house for the rest of my life... Is there a word in Greek for my phobia - the morbid fear of packing tape?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Drink with the mutants

Here's another great idea that I am donating to the world. Entrepreneurs: it's all yours.

I'd like to see a bar set up like a nuclear power plant. Not as in glowing plutonium rods everywhere and staff with three eyes serving you. More like having the bar staff behind a thick shield of glass which would have those freaky arm-length rubber gloves installed in it at regular intervals. So the staff would reach through to serve drinks, take money and operate the registers, but would at all times be insulated from the filthy drunken customers.

Not only would this be a great theme for a bar (and what the hey, why not have some glowing plutonium rods scattered about and give people extra eyes to glue to their heads at the door), it would also be a much more pleasant place for people to work. You could keep the staff area filled with fresh cool air, pleasant piped-in string music to keep people relaxed, and the floor would be dry and safe underfoot.

If you set one up in Adelaide, let me know. I'd like to check it out.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why can't we all just get along?

Last week I had to interview a "standardised patient", or SP. The SP is an actor whose role is to play a patient that we interview or examine for the purposes of assessment. It's a good system because the SP is given a brief of what things he should say under what circumstances, and he can improvise the rest.

Early on in the course (as I am), it seems that the primary thing they want us to develop is some kind of skill at showing empathy. Or faking it convincingly, either will do. To that end, after we interview the SP to take a medical history from them, they give us a score for our empathy skills. I think it would be better to get qualitative feedback rather than quantitative. But then, I got an okay score since I am [irony] Empathy King [/irony] and maybe they're happy as long as we aren't pathologically hopeless, and those who are get extensive qualitative feedback on their many flaws. Which must be a barrel of laughs.

My interview got off to a strange start because I was in the room waiting for the SP to turn up, having a bit of a chin wag with my Illustrious Tutor. I was pretty nervous since although it's a straightforward task, if you get nervous you tend to forget things, so I got nervous about getting nervous. All of a sudden the SP comes in, fresh from having seen the previous student in another room.

Wow, that was terrible. I forgot my lines in that one. Just made up something, I think it was okay.

Illustrious Tutor
Ha ha. Well, it doesn't matter much.

No, it wasn't going very well anyway. Ha ha.

[Starting to feel like a third wheel]

Hello. Well, I'd better get into character. Pffft! Pffft!
[Blows air out of puffed up cheeks, flaps arms like a Chicken Tonight ad.]
Okay, let's go.

It was all very strange and surreal. In a way it helped though, because it emphasized to me that this guy was just pretending to be sick, so my natural response was that I would pretend to be a doctor. This was a big improvement over talking to Real Live Sick People (tm) because then I find myself painfully aware that they have real problems and I am not helping them out one little bit with all my clumsy questioning, so I try to rush and it all goes pear-shaped. With this guy, I was able to take my time and make doctor-like noises like this: "mmmMMMmmm". It was a lot of fun. I think next time I'll try to rustle up a clipboard and maybe one of those reflect-y head-lamp things. Or is that dentists? Just the clipboard then.

Med school - teaching students to pretend to be doctors.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Eat when hungry, sleep when tired

Why is it that eating when you aren't hungry is so repulsive?

Eating when you're hungry is, of course, the main thing that gets me through the day. I really look forward to eating dinner having worked up a good honest hunger, or failing that a dishonest one. Eating is incredibly rewarding most of the time.

But today I had to eat a big bowl of tomato soup and I really struggled with it. I had gotten up late, felt hungry, and eaten a big breakfast at about 10:30 am. Then I got to uni by midday, but I knew that I would be busy all afternoon so if I skipped lunch I would be ravenous by 5 pm and would end up impulsively eating something ridiculous like 5 cheese sandwiches, a leftover packet of biscuits, and some hummous, and then I would feel nauseous. So I opted for the early lunch after the late breakfast. The supercharger option.

I suppose it didn't help that the soup was pretty bad. It really tasted just like it had been poured out of a tin and warmed up. Not even some pepper or tabasco or sauteed spanish onion or melted anchovy fillets or diced boiled eggs or any of those other yummy things you can throw onto a bowl of bad soup to turn it good again. I had a dinner roll with some rock-hard butter that I had to soften in my armpit for a while before I could spread it, and that was okay. But the soup itself - bleurgh.

Actually, it was a lot like trying to eat when you have a really bad cold. Except it was even worse than that because when you have a cold you can't taste anything. Today I could just taste bad soup. But I had the same bizarre biological awareness that you are forcing stuff into your head and mashing it round before squeezing it down further inside you. It was about as fun as feeding someone else. I should have made aeroplane noises to persuade myself to eat. "Open wide - neeeeeeOOOOWWW!! Here it comes!"

Kids have it so easy - they just spit it out. And when they get hungry later on they just scream out for food. They don't sit there, hunched over their microscopes, peering down at slides of some poor bugger's cancerous colon, thinking that they feel really hungry but just lost their appetite all the same. No, that particular joy seems to be reserved for medical students.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Books, I've read a few

But then again, too few to mention. Dang it, I'll mention them anyway. Here's what I've been reading the last few weeks.

The Great Gatsby by Nicki Greenberg
What, not by F. Scott Fitzgerald?? No, this is a graphic adaptation of the book by an Australian comic artist. Go Aussie! I am in the minority of people who were never made to read the original in high school. I'm glad I wasn't, because I seldom enjoy books I am forced to read, and it would have ruined this fine book for me. It's such a sad, nostalgic story. Heartbreaking in the way the characters reach out for human contact yet always fall back to loneliness and isolation. How appropriate for them to be depicted as odd little frogs, seahorses, and other less identifiable creatures. I was given this book to celebrate Willie Nelson's 75th birthday. Thank very much! I really enjoyed reading it. And since it was free, it's value:price ratio is infinite! If this book was a type of cheese it would be vintage cheddar.

Flak by Michael Veitch
A book of interviews with World War II air force veterans about their wartime exploits written by a comedian. I'm sure there's more to him than that (and this book does indeed reveal a little of that) but it's an odd concept that must have raised some eyebrows in the publishing world. There are some amazing stories told here, but the book is ultimately very frustrating because you're left wanting to know more about these men and how they really felt about what happened. Too often the focus is on the equipment and hardware being used, and a blow by blow account of the action, a bit like a storyboard for a movie, then the author ends the chapter with an empty observation like, "I couldn't help wondering whether Reg had really ever left the war behind." Why didn't you ask him them? It's as if he was so in awe of their physical courage (and blind luck) that he doesn't dare to direct the conversation. I really wanted to know more about what happened to these men, and their wives, after the action was over. Again, I was given this book, so in theory its value:price ratio is infinite. But only a small infinity like aleph-null, not a large one. If this book was a watch it would be a Casio digital (with a light!).

Why I Write by George Orwell
Actually a collection of four essays, the longest of which is "The Lion and the Unicorn". Written in the throes of World War II, it presents a detailed and cogent argument for why Britain must become a socialist republic if it is to have any chance of winning the war. Detailed, cogent, and ultimately mistaken. Still, it's a fascinating read. Orwell correctly foresees the decline of the classed society in its more outlandish forms but gets the cause wrong. He believed that capitalism would never be able to compete with a directed economy because of the wasted resources being diverted to produce ladies' stockings etc to make money for the rich. As it turns out, capitalism crushed the Axis completely while Macy's in New York held record-breaking sales at the same time. In his defence, Orwell did not foresee Operation Barbarossa and the brutal war in the east that ultimately saw Western Europe effectively liberated by the Russians fighting in Ukraine and Poland. Of the other essays in the book, "Politics and the English Language" is worth reading. It's a call for clear, simple, and honest speech and writing, and I think I will re-read it many times in the future. If this book was a car it would be a Leyland P-76

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene
Finally finished reading this, after detouring through about 4 other books. Disappointing. And strange. It began as a very British dry comedy about the conservative bank manager out of his depth when travelling with his outrageous elderly aunt. It morphs halfway through into a melancholy Gatsby-ish meditation on life and loss. Not quite sure what was really going on in old Graham's head when he wrote this. If this book was an item of clothing it would be culottes.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene
On the other hand, this book is fantastic. It conveys perfectly the "us and them" mentality of the world of secret squirrels, where those inside the "business", including your adversaries, are more trusted than those outside, including your own family and friends. It's very dark, with several characters verging on psychopathic behaviour in their complete uncaring disregard for the consequences of their actions for other people. I found it had convincing explanations for the byzantine machinations of international espionage while at the same time emphasizing the dreary bureaucratic nature of it all. If this book was a flower it would be a protea.

I am currently reading The Spare Room by Helen Garner. I read Joe Cinque's Consolation a few years ago and thought it was interesting but not compelling, so I was a bit dubious about trying this. My fears were groundless. This is a very very good book. More to come...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Oral hygiene doesn't mean licking yourself clean

Remember a week ago? When I created a bacterial culture from the crud on my tonsils? And someone in the class got accidentally dosed up with E. Coli? Well, it turns out they were very lucky not to have been swabbed with whatever came off my throat. After one week, here's what my agar plate looked like:

People in my class were very impressed with how disgusting it looks. I felt like the bad dude in microbiology. Much more exciting than the dull white dots that other people's plates grew. Mine has white dots, green patches, and the upper left region shows a clear patch where the bacteria have broken down the blood in the agar. Just imagine what they've done to me. The picture doesn't show it very well, but the bacterial colonies are all connected by straight lines which I believe are canals they have built to channel water from the cool polar regions to the arid deserts in the centre of the plate.

We then had to prepare slides using Gram stain to examine the bacteria. I was eagerly looking forward to seeing what they looked like, but my slide ended up looking almost completely blank. I probably stuffed up the fixing stage and must have washed my bacterial civilisation down the sink. What a shame. If you live near Adelaide I wouldn't go swimming in the ocean for the next few days.

Anyway, shamed in public as I was by my horrible tenants, on the way home I dropped in to the supermarket, which gives me the opportunity for a quick self-portrait.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Blog and get free stuff!

A few weeks ago I asked for book recommendations. In response, a helpful reader recommended a book to me. Now, something wonderful has happened! That very book (Helen Garner's The Spare Room) arrived in the mail with my address and name on the parcel, in time for Willie Nelson's birthday no less!

I have a few theories about what happened.
  1. Willie Nelson read my blog and was so happy that I wished him a happy birthday that he scoured my blog for appropriate gifts and noticed that someone else thought I would enjoy this book, and express mailed it from the US so it arrived the same day! How thoughtful is that!
  2. The person who sent it to me deliberately mentioned the book to me via the blog to create a sense of anticipation so that when I opened the parcel I wouldn't say, "Huh? What kind of stupid book is this??", but rather, "Oh my god, it's that book I was recommended!" This is also very thoughtful, although I must say somewhat reckless. What if I had read the earlier recommendation and rushed out and bought the book myself? Possible, though admittedly unlikely, as this would require a level of enthusiasm, initiative, and non-niggardliness that most people familar enough with me to mail me a book would know that I do not possess. (Phew - that sentence got a little complex. Anyone know an editor?)
  3. The recommendation was made by myself subsequent to reading the book, but using my skillz as a l33t hax0r to make the recommendation appear to be dated before the book arrived just to mess with your minds. You're in the Matrix!
  4. The book itself is some kind of Celestine Prophecy-esque revelation of the ultimate nature of reality which will allow me to actually travel in time (and listen to the crack of infinitives splitting as I do so) and recommend the book to myself before I have read it.
Hmmm. Re-reading that last paragraph and noticing that I used the words "Celestine Prophecy-esque" makes me think I've really reached the end of the jetty on this post. I'll wind it up here with a big thanks to the mystery person who gave me the book (mystery to you readers, I happen to know who the book is from). And I'll say that anyone else who wants to mail me free stuff, please do.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Self-diagnosis goes wrong

It seems to be a common occurrence for medical students to become raging hypochondriacs. Yesterday we were shown pictures of people with scarlet fever and the classic "strawberry tongue". Today, my tongue has been stinging and sore all day. When I woke up I assumed it was because I was thirsty. Later on I assumed it was because I burned it with organic coffee from the hippy shop. (Organic coffee burns your mouth so much better.) But this evening it occurred to me that I must have scarlet fever. A quick look at my tongue in the mirror confirmed that it was indeed somewhat red in colour. Or it probably would have been if it wasn't covered with the chewed up remains of whatever crud it was I'd been eating all day. Definitely scarlet fever!

So I ran to tell my Smaller Half who, being one year more knowledgeable than me regarding medical issues, disagreed with my hasty diagnosis. She told me that I didn't have scarlet fever, and that I was fine. Amazing how once you're in second year they teach you to diagnose without even glancing at the patient, and while doing the dishes too!

Then she mentioned, quite offhandedly, that "having a tingling tongue is a neurological sign". I gasped. I imagined myself having to write my own version of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", or "My Left Foot". I asked what it signified. "Well", she said, "it means you've got no brain."

That's champagne comedy!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

How to sleep on a airplane

Every time I fly I get sleepy, usually because I had to stay up until 2 in the morning packing a bag and obsessively checking that the grill is turned off, and then had to get up 3 hours later because I bought an el cheapo plane ticket that leaves at the crack of dawn. So I try to sleep on the plane. Sleeping on the plane is very unpleasant, primarily because I am taller than the average bloke was back in 1951 when they compiled all the biometric stats that they use to design things like plane seats, even unto this very day.

So because I am taller than the average 75 year old, I have two problems. First, when the idiot in front of me (and there always is one because it's on my frequent flyer profile) whangs his chair back one microsecond after we leave the tarmac, my kneecaps are forced up into my kidneys. Second, my head sticks up above the top of the seat so that even if I whang my seat back as hard as I can into the loser behind me my head still wobbles as if my neck was made of spaghetti. Both of these things mean it's hard to sleep.

I haven't thought of a solution to the first problem, apart from vomiting on the guy's head to force him to vacate his seat. But I have thought of an ingenious solution to the wobbly head problem: orange bags.

You know the orange (colour) bags made of plastic mesh that oranges (fruit) are sold in? You take one of them, pop it over your head, fasten it snugly under your chin, and loop the top through a hook that you superglue to the overhead luggage compartment. (Once the airlines cotton on to the fact that customer satisfaction rates soar with this scheme they will install the hook themselves.) The orange bag will support your head and hold it steady so you can sleep. The mesh allows for easy breathing, and also does not conceal your face, which is an essential product feature in this paranoid world of terrorism and identity theft. In fact, as long as you cut an appropriate hole in the bag, you don't even have to take it off to eat!

I'm confident that this is going to be the Next Big Thing in air travel. But I am not greedy. I am donating this idea to the world to make sure that everyone can benefit from it. Spaghetti-necks of the world unite! Stick your head in an orange bag today!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

8th wonder of the world

When my home printer is printing, it smells like Cheezels. Mmmm... I have absolutely no idea why this would be, but it's great.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

You know, it's like, metaphor?

I love metaphors. Mixed metaphors are even better. Recently my smaller half was describing a how difficult it was trying to get people in a group to comment on something. She said it was like pulling hen's teeth. I reckon this is a great phrase. Perfect for something that is not only very difficult, but also very rare.

Metaphors are also great learning tools. In a class recently the Learned Professor said that lymphocytes were the body's policemen. And earlier on we had something similar when we were told that macrophages were like Rambo, only more intelligent. Comments like these really help me remember things, presumably because they come with a whole set of pre-packaged associations that are useful. Well, sometimes they are useful, but sometimes they are misleading if you take them too literally.

Let's look at something I heard on the radio the other day: the unions are the heart of the Labor party. This tells us lots of information about the unions. For example, they are left of centre, they are extremely bloody to operate on, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with emotion at all. But I'm not sure this can be extended much further. (As it turns out, an extended metaphor is a conceit. Great word.) Who would the liver of the Labor party be? The brain is probably Kevin Rudd. Actually, the brain is probably Julia Gillard. Kevin Rudd would be the liver, since he is on the right and is a dense, impenetrable mass. And Bill Heffernan would be the colon of the Liberal Party, for obvious reasons.

Anyway, I'm wondering if it would be practical to try to learn new things without resorting to metaphor. I don't think I could, since it is such a well practised mental routine for me. Is it something I have learned to do because it's effective for me, or is metaphor in fact the basis for most of our learning? But this raises the question of how we start learning new things in the first place when we are kids. What does our first ever metaphor hang off? Maybe a child psychologist could tell me if children need to be a certain age before they can understand metaphor. Any child psychs out there care to comment?

So many questions, so few psychologists. Apart from the ones behind the counter in Hungry Jacks.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Instant food poisoning

Ah, the fun we have! Today we had a practical class requiring us to culture the bacteria from our mouths on agar plates. It's quite a simple process, but a bit uncomfortable for those of us with a strong gag reflex [insert joke here] because the swab has to be brushed across the tonsils to get the really good stuff. Brings tears to the eyes. It's funny though because I didn't have any awareness of the swab actually touching my tonsils, just a memory of the overwhelming feeling of my stomach trying to climb out of my mouth for no apparent reason.

Unfortunately, one group stuffed up. Instead of moistening the swab in saline to help it pick up the bacteria from our mouths, they moistened the swab in a liquid culture of E. coli which had been rather idiotically left in the same tube rack as the saline solution. So instead of culturing the bacteria from their good friend, they actually infected him with a dose of E. coli. Whoops!

Once he gets off the toilet he's really going to get them good.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Slave to fashion

I was chatting with a friend recently when, in a blatant attempt to increase my readership, I mentioned that I have a blog. He said, "You have a blog? How 2005."

Friday, May 2, 2008

Med student = apathetic egomaniac

In my tutorial group we have to rate our satisfaction with our own learning outcomes each week on a scale from "very satisfied" right down to "very dissatisfied" via "neutral". It's a bit like being taught medicine by management consultants, and probably has the same outcome. Soon we'll just need reams of butcher's paper instead of textbooks, and Kevin Rudd will probably pop in to see how the "Medicine 2011 Forum" is coming along.

Last week we completely failed to pick up on a couple of pretty important issues which led one of my Perceptive Colleagues to propose a new learning outcome: "full of rage", to be used when you weren't even aware that something was important but now appears to be the loose keystone about to cause a ton of bricks to collapse upon you. "Full of impotent rage" might be more accurate, though perhaps too Freudian.

This is the long way of getting around to telling you that I am currently Full Of Rage regarding the bizarre proliferation of societies for medical students to join and the inept way they are governed. They are like cancers, needlessly multiplying until we are all swamped. Some of them are very general, like the Medical Students Society. Some of them are more specific, like the Overseas Medical Students Society. Some of them are verging on the surreal, like the Doctors Opposed To Rent Increases Society, or the Society For The Prevention Of Proliferation Of Medical Student Societies. To be honest, I don't really object to any one society in particular. There are some I think are good, some I think are stupid, and some I laugh at, but that's true of almost everything. Everyone is part of some special interest group, and that's fine.

The thing that makes me Full Of Rage is that I suspect the reason that we have approximately as many societies as we have students is so that everyone can be President of something. Looks good on the resume, right? President of the Society To Support Medical Students That Are Married To Each Other. I could head up that one. And the great thing is, with such a small membership base, we could easily do absolutely nothing. Yes that's right, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Oh sure, we'd have social events. They ALL have social events. And they justify it to us by saying, "Sometimes you need a break from medicine!", to which I answer, "So why would I want to hang out with a bunch of med students??" Every weekend you have to fend off the mobs of marauding medical student societies out press-ganging for the latest pub crawl. (And why does it always have to be drinking? Why not get together for a Monopoly night and celebrate the glorious history of capitalism? Doctors love money don't they? Oh sorry, not supposed to mention the M-word.)

I am Full Of Rage. Med students. They are so self-obsessed that right here in first year they are already padding their resumes with meaningless positions to make sure that they get into the surgical training program of their choice. (And don't get me started on people who already "know" that they want to specialize AND know precisely which speciality - one for a future post perhaps...) And when they do get elected as the Assistant President For Photocopier Toner Oversight, they go into hibernation for 12 months because they are soooooo busy with their study, only to reappear at the next round of elections to secure the highly prized spot one rung up the ladder. Meanwhile all my photocopies have gone streaky.

Med students. Enough to make you sick.

(I feel so much better now)