WHY I AM ALWAYS ARMED…WITH A PEN

The analogy between the pen and the sword is timeless and irrevocable. My favourite ‘sword’ is the faithful BIC® clic medium black ball pen (pictured above). I always have at least two on my person. It has never ejaculated into my pocket and it never stutters. It is easy to prime; the side push button is resolute and never gives in to the pressure of my brutish writing. The tip is fine and elegant. The pen itself is very light and easy to manipulate. It is just like an AK47; trustworthy and obedient.

The sole purpose of a pen is to act as a medium of transmitting what is in the mind onto paper. It is thus, in my opinion, pointless to walk around with a congress of ideas in one’s head without equipping oneself with a means of deploying the most powerful weapon in all of eternity – an idea. Rudolf Hess and Emil Maurice, as Adolf Hitler’s secretaries in prison, put on paper one of the most dangerous ideas ever formulated – Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Wole Soyinka massaged his sanity and shook the entire Nigerian government by writing on tissue paper in prison on his route to winning the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Albert Einstein penned the famous E=mc² on Swiss government paper as he laboured in the patent office. The Holy Qu’ran, the Holy Bible, impeachments, independence declarations, petitions, treaties and Constitutions have all been PENNED. The English Constitution is a notable exception, it is not written down on paper.

History is replete with tales of great ideas being birthed at the spur of the moment. Museums are well stocked with odd pieces of paper on which doodles of inspiration changed the world. Writers are particularly notorious for their private graffitti on napkins. I too am also hoping to have a piece of grime-smudged tissue paper with my handwriting on it locked up in a highly secure display cabinet in some obscure library or museum. I must admit, so far all my doodles and odd pieces of paper have been under safe storage at the municipality sewers.

As a medical doctor I can tell you this much; a pen can be a lethal physical weapon too, if used well. All that is required is an intimate knowledge of Human Anatomy and this explains why I have in my possession quite a safe number of textbooks on the subject which I religiously peruse whenever I feel physically threatened. It also explains why my older brother has a strong phobia against Human Anatomy textbooks. While growing up he would frequently taunt me and bully me (as all loving big brothers do) but one day I stopped him in mid-swing and gave him a calm but unforgettable lecture on the anatomy of the neck while pointing out the various parts of his neck with my trusted pen. There are so many sweet spots on the neck that are just waiting for the right pen in the right hands. The trachea, jugular veins, carotid arteries, lung apex and of course the space between the fourth and fifth ribs on the left chest just close to the nipple are just some of the few inviting rendezvous points for a definitive conclusion of any argument.

In the event that such an unlikely meeting is successful there is always the Police’s admission of guilt forms to be signed. Having a pen at all times is one sure way of making any negotiations with the Police go smoothly. They always have some line on some paper waiting for your signature even when you have not crossed their line (the blurry line of the law). In my country having an encounter with a policeman on a daily basis is as inevitable as stopping at a red traffic light. They are everywhere and oddly enough they almost never seem to have a pen handy to facilitate the purgatory process of getting them off your back. My guess is that they always conveniently forget their State-bought pens in their children’s satchels along with pocket money ‘dropped’ from some citizen’s pocket.

And then there are contracts. As a typical Zimbabwean I am always hunting for work and I choose not to tempt Fate by not having a pen ready to sign a contract of employment whenever and wherever it may pop up. In fact I have never signed a contract of any kind with a pen that has never felt the warmth of my bosom (the breast pocket is the best place to incubate your pen). It is because of this simple reason that I find women to be the best people to borrow a pen from in winter; you get the added advantage of avoiding frostbite on your fingers through the use of a pen from the warmest of bosoms.

Last but far from least are the drug prescriptions, referral notes and odd medical scripts. That needs no explanation. Obviously this is the main reason I always carry a pen and if my essay has given the reader a contrary impression then I guess I have done a darn good job.

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BOOK REVIEW: THE HOUSE OF HUNGER by Dambudzo Marechera

Dambudzo Marechera is my favourite writer of all time. The House of Hunger epitomises what Marechera was all about and the Guardian Fiction Prize of 1979 was just icing on the cake. I have read the book over ten times over the years but I have never gotten round to reviewing it.

The title of the book arises from the novella with the same title which forms the biggest chunk of the book. In addition to the novella are nine short stories all aptly titled to give the reader a snapshot of the writer’s eccentricities. It is definitely not an easy book to review neither is it easy to read. The writer rapes us into journeying through his tormented mind. The title novella itself is hugely autobiographical as the narrator relates his ordeal in war-torn Rhodesia. The first sentence is epic; I got my things and left.What follows is a schizophrenic repertoire of literary genius as the narrator-cum-writer-trump takes the reader through the dusty streets of a black Rhodesia ghetto all the way via hell to his final escape from the house of hunger.

In characteristic Marechera-style, the narrator’s first sex lesson stands out. It is this particular part of the book that lured me to the man. I vividly remember the day our high school English Literature teacher described the scene in a disdainful but proud voice as he attempted to dissuade us from reading that type of Literature. Naturally that gave me the insatiable impetus to read every single word Marechera ever wrote. The sex lesson came as a rude arousal from slumber under his parents’ bed where the narrator had to sleep every night for lack of space. He hears the squeeking of the bed and the tortured breaths of the two custodians of the loins from whence he came. His first attempt of the same act got him a venereal disease; a disease which earns him the rite of passage into adulthood. The whole book reeks of violence. Gunshots are so commonplace it is difficult to hear the small still voice of the drunk and gifted poet. Flora Veit-Wild, Marechera’s biographer and lover, repeatedly clamoured that the author was more of a poet than a prose-writer. I agree. The same could be said of James Joyce whom Marechera emulated and revered.

Had Dambudzo Marechera not tragically died so young in 1987 (at the tender age of 32) I am quite certain every student of English Literature would have hated the man. His work is a nightmare to study. It is convoluted, sprinkled and true. He was a voracious and prodigious reader who wrote exactly what he read after first testing it out on his own life of coarse. The House of Hunger is a brilliant work of art and the best Zimbabwe has ever produced. It is a difficult book to read but very much worth the effort. I dare you to read it.

The Difference between a Surgeon and a Physician

I always stand guard against over-generalisations and over-simplifications but sometimes there is no choice but to succumb to the banalities of common literature. A surgeon is a medical doctor who specialises in doing operations (as the British say) or operating theatre procedures (as the Americans call it) while a Physician on the other hand specialises in prescribing drugs and everything else other than “cutting to effect a cure”. There are overlaps of coarse: Surgeons also prescribe medications and Physicians also do some surgical procedures. The subject of my essay however is not about the qualifications and job descriptions of the two but in the juxtaposition of personality traits that continues to pique the interest of any individual who finds themselves picking lilies, thorns and roses in the rich field that is the medical profession.

Scientific work has been done to better understand these differences. A few come to mind. Rene Warschkow et al did a comparative cross-sectional study on personality traits in Internists (the American term for Specialist Physicians) and Surgeons in Switzerland using the Frieburg Personality Inverntory and published some interesting findings. In general, Surgeons viewed themselves as having excessive achievement orientation and extraversion (talkative, energetic, enthusiastic and assertive) while their counterparts, the Physicians, admitted to having decreased aggressiveness. In the study Surgeons had the stereotype of being less inhibited, more excitable, aggressive and strained while Physicians on the other hand were almost balanced and had the stereotype of having highly developed social orientation. McCulloch et al also published interesting findings on tolerance of uncertainty, extroversion, neuroticism and attitudes to randomised controlled trials (how a doctor accepts the new science) among one thousand (1 000) Surgeons and Physicians who were mailed questionnaires and replied. Surgeons were found to be more extroverted (the talkative doctors) and less neurotic while also being more intolerant of uncertainty. However, no difference was found in the attitudes regarding clinical trials.

On the 27th of September 2013, at the International Conference on Residency Education, Dr Joseph M. Drosdeck of Wexner Medical Centre Ohio made a very fascinating presentation on his findings in a study he did on 68 Surgical participants and 124 non-Surgical participants on the Five Factor Model (also known as the Big Five Inventory Survey). I have to admit this single work of science – the Big Five Inventory Survey – has been the single most powerful driving force behing this nifty essay. Drosdeck compared five aspects of personality:

1. Extraversion (explained above)

2. Agreeableness (sympathetic, kind, mature, caring and affectionate – both hostility and indifference)

3. Conscientiousness (organised, thorough, diligent and planful). Good impluse control also falls under this category.

4. Emotional Stability (Neuroticism) – calm in the face of adversity. Low scores were associated with Anxiety, Depression and self – consciousness.

5. Openness to Experience (Intellectual, creative, artistic – Conventional andConservative) OR

Preference to familiarity

I found Drosdeck’s conclusions very fascinating. He concluded that there are indeed inherent personality differences between Surgical and non-Surgical specialties AND personality traits change during medical training. This is exactly what we ALL have known: Surgeons are born but can be made. Physicans are born but can be made. Now that I have the warm embracing cushion of fact allow me to embellish and indulge.

I know a real Surgeon. I have met him. He has a very deep voice and he loves his drink. Legend has it he once vomitted into an open abdomen while operating. He was called to an emegerncy (even though he was not on call) while lubricating and because he is a real Surgeon he responded. The patient survived, made a full recovery and the Surgeon is still a real Surgeon. I remember a particular day. I was seated somewhere in a plain dark corner while the Surgeon introduced us the meek medical students to Surgery. He said and this I remember clearly for it was during one of those few moments I actually paid attention during a lecture, “A Surgeon has eyes of an eagle, the heart of a lion, hands of a baby……”. He must have said more but I blanked out as usual. He is a politician, loves authority, thinks he’s the greatest Surgeon on earth, thinks being a Surgeon is the greatest call on earth and believes, “God’s greatest gift to mankind is a functioning anus.” He has childish tendencies. I remember one day in theatre we had a very interesting case and my other boss, the other real Surgeon, decided to grace the theatre with his presence. In came in the real Surgeon late, takes one look at the other real Surgeon and sulks his way through one of the best acts of thievery I have ever seen. I believe a Surgeon has to be a very good thief. He has to break into a home, take what he came for and leave everything as close as it was before he broke in. He has to go in, grab, fix and get the hell out of there before he gets caught. Before he gets caught by the Creator.

I know a real Physician. I have met him. He talks well, dresses well, walks fast and praises everyone….at the appointed time. He is eloquent. When he talks you have no choice but to listen. He makes sure you know that he knows what he is talking about. He smells good too. The nurses talk about him as if he invented soap. I heard one say, “He smells of water”. Not ‘like water’. OF water. He too loves authority though he seems to shun it. He is soft. Soft-spoken and very very verbose. He loves euphemisms. AIDS is not in his vocabulary but it certainly is what he knows best. It is ‘retroviraemia’. He can recite all the latest guidelines but never calls Diabetes ‘high blood sugar’ unless talking to a patient. It is ‘glycaemia’. He can do a full examination in under ten minutes and come up with ten different diagnoses. He knows all the drugs: their names, uses, dosages and everything about them that you do not want to know. He thinks “Surgeons just like cutting and nothing else”. He thinks they are not intelligent. He is very gentle. Even his handwriting is gentle and delicate.

A doctor is either a Surgeon or a Physician. Paediatricians, Radiologists, Psychiatrists, Anaesthetists, Oncologists, Gynaecologists, Haematologists, General Practitioners and the works. Every doctor is either a Physician or a Surgeon………….or a Pathologist. Now those people are different and special. They have their own category. I know a Pathologist.

On faith healing and our Medicine: KICKING THE HORNET’S NEST

 

It might appear as if the ever flourishing false prophets and popcorn faith healers have made a huge dent on the coffers of trained Physicians through their promise of instant cures which unfortunately occur less frequently than they claim to do. Quite to the contrary, the effect has been a huge boon in critical cases that failed to respond to pricey anointed oils, stickers, bangles and cucumbers who find themselves paying for expensive tests, drugs and procedures which could have been easily avoided if only they had come in sooner.

It is with despair and anger that doctors in Christian countries perpetually attend to patients who snub evidence-based medical advice in preference to consistently unreliable charms and chants conjured and propagated by those who claim to be God’s elite. It is indeed not uncommon to see a patient twice at both extremities of a spectrum of hellish experiences of deception that comprise the act of attending and believing in these myriad false churches. A typical case of a young lady coming in with abdominal pains secondary to a growing ectopic pregnancy who refuses surgery and instead opts for a US$300 one-on-one session with “my Papa” but later comes back with a ruptured tubal pregnancy that requires $600 life-saving blood transfusion on top of the surgery originally advised on rings true in the minds of most doctors practising in a Zimbabwean hospital.

The driving force of this madness is the belief in the myth that seeking professional advice or imbibing prescribed medication is a testimony of lack of faith. The notion is that one only needs prayers and impartation (through physical objects such as oils, stickers and such) for complete healing. The simple rebuttal to this draconian contention is that the Bible does not teach that. It is with utter disgust that we find these “anointed” objects actually being sold in these churches. Buying a blessing? Purchasing a miracle? Are these not the things that Jesus Christ physically and violently destroyed in the temple of Jerusalem. What is it he said about the function of churches (temples)? These false prophets and their flock might benefit from reading Mark 11:15-19. What are these churches really based on if not on the Holy Bible which they obviously have not read or choose to distort or ignore?

Here is my argument. I believe doctors are part of God’s miracles. The Son of God Himself chose a Physician (by the name of Luke) to be part of his elect Twelve. Getting professional medical treatment is not mutually exclusive with faith in God and in His healing. Doctors are simply instruments used in the grand scheme of preservation and perpetuation of life. It would most definitely be imprudent for one to pursue faith healing without at least knocking on a Physician’s door.

BOOK REVIEW: ENIGMA by Robert Harris

Between the covers of this book are pages of raw talent. With ENIGMA, Robert Harris has driven me into a rut where every other book I am going to have the misfortune of reading will only pale in comparison to the sheer quality of just this one book.

The plot is deceptively predictable – a genius, young but eccentric mathematician gets a crack at decoding the legendary Nazi naval code Enigma while falling for a sweet but wayward dame who may or may not be a spy. It is the typical plot for this particular genre; a genre built around the complex and by nature illicit art of mathematically decoding codes (cryptanalysis). The young Tom Jericho gets invited back to Bletchley Park (the British spy headquarters for code-breakers) from a sojourn he was forced to take in quiet Cambridge following a nervous meltdown at work. On his unceremonious arrival – as the prodigal weakling – he is shocked to find the the girl he lost his virginity and marbles to, Claire, had literally gone AWOL. He acquires the uncanny assistance of Claire’s roommate Hester in searching for the disappeared lass.

What sets ENIGMA apart from the numerous other books in this genre is the depth of understanding of the science itself exquisitely blended with powerful prose and hints of poetry to create a beautiful work of art. It is lines like, ‘She wore her long, dark hair like a headache….'{describing Hester on page 301) that remind the reader that what they have in their hands is not just a novel but a literary work of art. As I was reading the book I could not help but silently compare it with what I thought was up to that point the best book in the genre, Dan Brown’s DIGITAL FORTRESS. After I read Dan Brown’s book I always felt like the book was well researched and interesting but there was one thing it was missing. I never knew what that thing was till I read Robert Harris’ book. What DIGITAL FORTRESS was missing was Robert Harris.

I highly recommend him.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mind Game by Hector Macdonald

This is Macdonald’s first novel and I must say for a novice he did pretty well. The literary style reminds me of the German authors Hermann Hesse and Gunter Grass. The Mind Game is a book written with the sole intention of messing with the reader’s mind.

It documents in rather vengeful detail the perils of a young Oxford undergraduate student (Ben Ashurst) as he is used as a guinea pig in an elaborate experiment designed by a hot-shot scientist on a quest to design an algorithm that detects and manipulates emotions. To make things interesting a hot dame (Cara) is thrown into the plot and given the role of propelling the story forward through her depiction as a mirage Ben is meant to view as reality. The entire book reeks of deception and betrayal. Expectations and paranoia drive the plot to a point of madness. Over and over again it appears Ben continues to lose everything; love, sanity, friends and everything in between.

Unlike Hesse and Grass who made this genre great, The Mind Game falls far short in its attempt at justifying every vector taken in the voyage of the inner workings of the human mind. In other words it is just too ludicrous. I got the feeling of reading a succession of short stories with no happy endings that were pieced together to form an amalgamation of narratives that barely pass as a collective work commonly termed as a ‘a novel’.

It makes for a good beginner’s taste of the larger and most accomplished works of this genre. It was certainly a good effort and not giving its author due credit for this work is just plain malice which I choose not to be a part of.

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