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A PATIENT WHO CHANGED MY PRACTICE

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7028.415 (Published 17 February 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:415
  1. Alison Martin

    Torture

    She was just an ordinary woman with an ordinary problem. It was the Sunday evening of a normal weekend on call. I was an average first year senior house officer in general medicine. Yet the conversation that I had with her in the middle of the ward during the lull which followed the storm of the previous 36 hours was to change my practice, my career, my future.

    She had an extraordinary tale, told rather haltingly in her slightly foreign accent. It was a tale of torture years before at the hands of a foreign organisation. As she spoke, I could picture the anguish, empathise with all she must have felt, share her relief to have survived this far.

    She had been taken prisoner and shut in a room with her tormenters. Separated from her family, she was to be allowed no rest, but every so often she was encouraged to think that she might soon be able to catch some sleep. There would be a lull in the proceedings followed by a period of sheer terror. There was no food and little to drink. Everything would build up to a frenzy of interrogation, then stop abruptly. Just as she was beginning to relax a petty irritation of minor importance would interrupt her. She was exhausted and short tempered, but shouting at her captors only made them more determined to keep her awake. And always there was the promise of sleep, which was never quite fulfilled. For two whole days she had endured this—two whole days.

    Her description perfectly fitted my weekend so far. There had been the mundane bloods round, the usual admissions, the cardiac arrests, the worry about the bed state. I had not slept at all the previous night and was not likely to fare much better that day, but I had briefly reached the haven of my room several times. The canteen was closed whenever I had the time to eat; the food dispensing machine was empty.

    Talking with my patient had shown me my life. When my contract finished so did I. Five years on I am a housewife and mother and have never once regretted my decision to leave medicine. But I still feel resentment about a system which could encourage such torture in its own land yet condemns barbarism abroad.—ALISON MARTIN is now a housewife in Essex

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