Friday, May 04, 2012


It was a television programme that made me think of the past. I was once a medical student, extracting the semicircular canals from a dogfish intact – a considerable feat, I was told. Beyond that I know little or nothing of medicine – or radiation. But my experiences in those far oft days, when there was no cure for TB, might be of interest today. Just after the war ended I was grounded as a pilot, learned to be an air Photographic Intelligence officer, and contracted TB during the terribly cold winter of 1947. The disease was discovered when I was about to be demobilised. When working as a late entry into medicine, the TB in my lung returned. There was still no cure for it. One simply hoped for the best. But it was the end of medicine for me. Rest was considered to be all-important for recovery. And to rest the affected lung an artificial pneumothorax was administered. The procedure involved was to insert a thick needle between the ribs to introduce air to a gap between lung and ribcage (no anaesthetic and no fun if the needle hit a rib on its way in). This air gap would then become a buffer and thus rest the lung. But this air, passing into the gap under atmospheric pressure, became absorbed by the lung and had to be topped up – initially weekly, and then fortnightly, over a period of seven years. Before each air-introduction process, doctors wanted to see the size of the air gap so as not to penetrate the lung with the needle. For this I was scanned – that is, placed between a powerful x-ray machine and the doctor, so that the medicine man could actually see through me – or, rather, the upper part of me. The doctors in question wore leaded protection from the x-rays. I, obviously, had no protection whatsoever. So my body, over those seven years, was submitted to a vast amount of powerful radiation. As I write, I am 87 years old. Most consider me to be much younger. So they ask for my secret. I just say “plenty of red wine, plenty of garlic and a good sex life”. That ends the conversation pretty quickly and we can go on to other matters. In looking back, the treatment I received was almost medieval in concept, combined with modern radiation – a word that was later to get a very bad name indeed with the advent of the atomic bomb. But was all that radiation shot at me possibly the real reason that at my age I can still run for a bus, out-walk my wife, cook, paint, garden and all the rest – and all done with little effort. Is, then, radiation, perhaps, rather good for you after all?