Sunday, 19 June 2011

Doctors are Terrifying


There are many stressful things in life - Bangalore's traffic, Mumbai's real estate prices, and Chennai's weather (it gets bitterly cold in the winters - even dropping below twenty degrees Celsius. Shiver.). In the past month, I have discovered a new source of stress that trumps even these: hospital visits.

For about two weeks now, I have been going regularly to hospitals in Chennai. This is a remarkably harrowing experience. For starters, there's the simple fact of their geographical expansion. Starting with four or five general hospitals in Nungambakkam, they have since then colonised the neighbourhood. They have put up a heart health centre in Greams Road, a gym and yoga centre in Wallace Garden, a pediatric hospital in Rutland Gate, and parking and pharmacies throughout Nungambakkam. You get the feeling that you're dealing with the medical equivalent of the Borg: everything encountered will be assimilated. Or to use a real world example, hospitals are to downtown Chennai what water hyacinth is to Lake Victoria. At some point, they will devour the Thousand Lights area. This is not something that puts you at ease.

But hospitals' restless search for lebensraum is merely a preview to the real horrors that await in the diagnostic tests. For starters, you have to fast for twelve hours before you take the tests. But what with the number of people getting their medical checkups, the whole process takes about six hours. Eventually, you end up not eating for eighteen hours. Even civil society wannabes don't stay without food that long. They have breakfast, join a fast during the day, and then skive off for chai and pakodas at six p.m. Having been through this, I now have new respect for Bandra posh girls, who don't eat at all.

And then there are the tests themselves. As if being on an empty stomach wasn't bad enough, you have to:

  • have your blood pulled out. Twice.
  • pee into a little plastic cup. Twice.
  • poop into a little plastic cup. Only once, fortunately. But hovering over a commode, while positioning a cup below your bottom and trying to time yourself to yank it away before it overflows is bad enough once.
  • be smeared with gloopy gel for ECGs and EEGs

but none of this is quite as undignified as what you do in the surgical examination. To wit:

  • take off your pants and underwear, and roll on your side while the doctor shoves a finger up your bum. The ominous slap of the latex glove going on will stay in my memories forever. And make me scream.

(In case you were wondering, at the end of all of this I was found to have normal sugar levels, normal cholesterol levels, a normal brain and heart, and a slightly fatty liver. My psychiatric examination revealed high anxiety levels though. That is, higher than what you would expect from somebody who had just been through a medical checkup. And you thought a humour columnist's life was all happiness and fun. Hah. Like Figaro, I laugh that I may not weep.)

But what makes this whole ordeal so terrifying is that we patients who have no medical knowledge have no idea if all this rigmarole is necessary at all. It's quite possible that the medical fraternity is just playing a vast practical joke at our expense.

You could justifiably ask how doctors benefit from trolling us in this way - but this assumes that they're doing it for a payoff. Remember that these are people who spent at least two years mugging for medical entrance examinations, then five years in an MBBS course where they slept about one hour a night, and then two years in an MD course. By the time they're done with this, their friends who did commerce or engineering and then an MBA are already marketers or investment bankers and partying in South Bombay with eight hundred rupee pint bottles of beer1. That sort of thing leaves you with a grudge against humanity.

You might think this is a stretch, but remember that ragging in Indian colleges works on similar lines. It goes a bit like this:

Senior 1: Aha! I see filthy fachchas! Come, let us make them perform humiliating and degrading acts!

Senior 2: But what will we get out of it?

Senior 1: Remember that this was done to us last year! Now at least we will get schadenfreude!

Senior 2: Indeed! Let us therefore rock!

So there is a precedent. It is possible therefore that annual medical checkups - are the medical community's way of ragging everyone else. For all you know, most medical procedures might be done purely for the amusement of the doctors. I can imagine them sitting in a common room, having a laugh at the gullibility of their hapless patients.

Dr Jasleen: I told my patient today that he'd have to give up drinking and eating meat. You should have seen the look on his face!

Dr Jasmeet: Ha ha ha! But if you really want to pwn patients, quit being a GP and come to urology. Today I told my patient that I'd have to make an incision in his penis and drain away fluid accumulation. He nearly fainted. It was hilarious!

(Note. Doctors in the above example are fictional. Any resemblance to living doctors is purely co-incidental.)

It is possible, of course, that this is just my anxiety talking. Most doctors are fine, upstanding people who will never perform unnecessary tests or needlessly complicated procedures, and have empathy for their patients and a charming bedside manner2. But as long as they know more than we do, we can never be sure of this. It's a terrifying thought.

1: Like my friend Kodhi who is a marketer and lives a rocking lifestyle. Psst. He's single.

2: Like my girlfriend's parents. They are doctors and awesome.

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