So, there I stood at the bottom of bed number thirty-six. Lying on the bed was a young man, about my age writhing in spastic, athethoid movement, neck extended, contractures of the arms and legs and a more shocking example of the physical misfortunes than I had ever seen. He seemed to totally lack any sort of control over his body, until my shocked eyes fell on his left lower extremity. Between his big toe and his second toe he was holding a pen, and despite the spastic movements of the rest of his body, he was writing in a small , precise cursive hand (foot!) on a stabilized notebook.
After I got over the shock of seeing a human being who seemed to be dealing in some way with the unimaginable devastation, I managed to pull myself together and said apprehensively, " I'm Stanley Smith, a medical student, and they sent me down to take a history and do a physical examination. Is that alright?"
The patient, later internationally known as the author of the book and subject of the movie "My Left Foot," and "Down all the Days", was kind to an apprehensive new medical student.
His speech was dysarthric and difficult to understand, his manner kindly. He was obviously used to this teaching hospital routine. I won't attempt to replicate his speech - that would just make him - and me sound stupid!!
"Yes, I know you students have to learn on someone," he replied in a dysarthric drawn out drawl.
I was grateful I could understand him and he me.
I took a history of sorts, more social than medical. After he told me he nearly died during delivery and that he had suffered serious brain damage, we got on to his life, which was much more in line with what I could comprehend than the medical stuff. That sort of human interest stuff gets knocked out of young doctors if they are not careful. The line between left wing loony stuff and human kindness becomes indistinguishable to many.
"So what do you do most of the time?" I asked him.
" I write," he said. "I've started doing a bit of painting too," he said.
He had a certain leprachaun- ish look about him that precluded an overly sympathetic attitude and made me feel that somehow he was managing to get some fun out of life, as indeed he was. If you want to know how, read "Down all the Days".
The only other famous 'medical case' I met in my student days, was Douglas Bader, the legless RAF Air ace, who was a double lower limb amputee and talked his way back into combat missions sans legs. He came to the Meath Hospital to encourage and reassure pediatric amputees regarding their their future life, though I don't think he was recommending that they become fighter-pilots!