The Doctor Who Played With Fire

The corpse, laid out on a gurney and covered with a white sheet, was wheeled onto the stage by two women in long, white lab coats. A middle aged man with a bow tie welcomed us, the incoming class of the spring semester, to Uppsala University and the Biomedicine Center, where we would spend the next two years in “pre-clinicals”, until we knew enough to start our three and a half clinical years at the Academy Hospital.

The Biomedicine Center was almost brand new, a glass and concrete labyrinth with a large sculpture depicting Watson and Crick’s DNA molecule by the front entrance. The vast complex lay near S-1, the Uppsala military regiment. The brick buildings diagonally across the street were very familiar to me as the place where I had met the biggest failure in all my twenty years only months before.

As I sat in the large lecture hall with the corpse on the stage, I glanced over at L., my buddy from the Swedish military’s elite division, the Interpreter School, where we had also sat next to each other on the first day, when the Captain in charge told us:

“Soldiers, you may all have been the smartest kids in your school, but it’s different here. Most of you won’t make it, and will be culled over the next two months. The Interpreter School accepts eighty recruits and graduates twenty to twenty-five. If you don’t have what it takes, don’t waste our time or yours!”

L. and I had both thought that learning Russian would be a neat way to spend our compulsory year and a half in the military, but just barely more than a month after that harsh introduction, we were both on our way back to our respective home towns to figure out what to do until we would be able to start medical school. Our military service was put on hold until we could return as medics.

The man with the bow tie went on to introduce our guest professor, on loan from the University of Bavaria. As we all knew, the Germans have been the greatest anatomists since the last century, and all of us had already been to the University book store to purchase Haeffel’s “Topografishe Anatomie”, which would be our constant companion for the next five months.

“Hopefully, most of you took several years of German in High School,” the man continued, “but those of you who chose French instead and only took one year of German are encouraged to take advantage of our German night classes, every weekday from 8 to 9 pm in Hall B next door.”

With that, he gestured to the Bavarian guest professor, who bowed and began speaking as the first slide was projected behind him. He had the most peculiar accent, and spoke in a slow drawl. I strained to get a handle on what he was saying. L. cocked his head and as I turned toward him, I saw many heads shaking.

With every new slide, the German speaker seemed to increase the tempo of his speech and as the slides behind him changed faster and faster, more and more heads were shaking in the lecture hall. Soon, all of us had given up trying to understand as the staccato voice from the stage pounded the syllables faster than a sports commentator and the rapidly changing slides became more and more filled with details. Heads were shaking, many people were talking, some stirred and rose from their seats and turned toward the exit doors.

Then, suddenly, everything turned dark, the speaker stopped talking and all the chatter in the lecture hall ceased. We sat in darkness and silence for maybe a minute. Then, a faint tune from a small flute rose from the dark stage and dim lights began to illuminate the two women with in white lab coats. One was playing the flute, the other picked up a clarinet and began to play.

As the lights continued to brighten, the sheet suddenly flew off the corpse, who sat up, pulled a trumpet to his mouth and belted out a tune like something from a Mardi Gras parade.

The stage filled with upperclassmen and the “German” professor took a bow as they all applauded in his direction.

Then, from a side door, a tall man with a very straight back, white riding pants, tall black riding boots and a whip appeared. Everyone fell silent as he began to address the students in the lecture hall.

“I’d like to introduce myself. I am professor A. of the Department of Anatomy. I just came back from riding in the fields beyond here. I want to welcome you all.”

L. and I looked at each other and shrugged – was this part of the joke?

Professor A. continued:

“So, you made it to medical school. And if you really want to, all of you will make it out of here with a diploma. Just work hard, enjoy Uppsala, and don’t worry about the German classes – all lectures will be in Swedish!”

He was right, all of us who wanted to made it all the way through. My friend L. chose to leave medical school for a life as a writer, but he often writes with great insight about doctors.

I remember that first day as if it were last week, but it will be forty years in a couple of months. It was the beginning of a journey of learning I can’t imagine ever reaching a final destination. In 1974 there was no HIV; we had only Hepatitis A, B and non A-non B; Sweden didn’t have a single CT scanner; mammography screening was just beginning; Tagamet, Prozac, “statin” cholesterol drugs and clot-busters weren’t invented; low-dose aspirin wasn’t known to reduce heart attack risk, and so on.

In spite of all that has changed in medicine since I started, the way I learned at Uppsala how to evaluate scientific information, to elicit a disease history, to examine patients, and to approach them as individuals, not “cases” – that has not had to change in forty years of doing the only work I could ever imagine doing.

Hans Duvefelt, MD is a Swedish-born family physician in a small town in rural Maine.

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